How do I look?

By Anna Sandiford 30/09/2010 4


According to a the UK Academy of Experts, the typical Expert Witness (which includes science, healthcare and engineering) in 2010 is male, self-employed and in his mid fifties. In the last 12 months he received 38 instructions (to do casework), wrote 39 reports, made one court appearance and charged 187 pounds per hour (information from the 2010 Fees Survey).  This is an interesting description because I don’t meet any of those averages: I am female, run a limited company and am in my forties (only just – practically 39 really). So far this year, we’ve had over 75 inquiries (not enough), written a similar number of reports and I’ve been to court three times, being mindful that when I was in England I was at court at least twice a week.  And we charge less than 187 pounds an hour, as do most of my English & NZ counterparts who work purely in forensics – without fail, the Fees Survey showed that the average hourly rates were lowest for criminal casework and many people reduced their hourly rate for criminal casework, probably because they know the difficulties in obtaining Legal Aid funding. Given that I left academia because of lack of funding, I have to question my own career moves…

Anyway, this set me off thinking about the differences between what people typically imagine a scientist to be compared with what they actually are.  I know from experience that when I go and give presentations to any group, whether they be clients or general interest groups, none of them expect me to look like I do; alot of people think I’m a lawyer (which contrasts nicely with a forensic scientist I knew who used to get asked if he was the Defendant when he went to give evidence).

At the recent Australia & New Zealand Forensic Science Society 20th International Symposium I had a good squizz at how the rest of the profession looks. I was struck by the lack of bearded academic-types wearing socks with sandals, as well as the large number of women who work in Document Examination & Handwriting.  There was also some CSI: Miami-type glamour in the form of figure-hugging, red strapless dresses (thankfully being worn by a woman). I was also very interested to see a research entomologist who had strung up buckets on his mum’s washing line. Doesn’t sound too bad, except that each bucket contained rotting flesh and a selection of maggots. He then issued his mum with a full-face breathing mask to block out the stench when she went in the garden.  The entomologist wasn’t in his 50s either.

Having said that, conferences like the ANZFSS international symposium are mostly populated by employees of law enforcement agencies, the biggest forensic science providers and/or research institutes because it all comes down to cost.  At over $2,500 for four days in Sydney, it was not a cheap deal.

So do I know any sterotypical forensic scientists?  I guess I do, but there aren’t that many around, which just goes to show that even with averages, there is a great deal of variation around the edges.


4 Responses to “How do I look?”

  • Good to see you back! 🙂

    I know what you mean about fees and how little you get once you accommodate what people can afford. I often have a hard time getting academics to understand that my full-cost fees are in fact less than the equivalent academic staff.

    I’m guessing that like me, your conference come straight out of your pocket rather than some university grant or whatnot. I love them for the travel, mixing and thinking about ideas, but the fees do make you think twice.

    That entomologist sounds like a character for a novel! Move over Kathy Reichs, I’m coming in. Maybe you should? 😉

  • Yep, have to pay these things from the company coffers so have to think long and hard about the benefits versus cost.
    As for Kathy Reichs, I’ve tried to think of stories but nothing comes close to reality! You’ll just have to wait and read my book next June….!

  • You should tell us more about your book sometime. Y’know, pimp it on the blog, as they say 😉

    I suppose you’d have to take care not to base what you wrote for a novel too close to a real case, to avoid legal hassles – ? (Or at least to avoid abusing your position of knowing a good deal about specific aspects of some cases.)

  • Once the book has been cleared by the legal department then I’ll have an idea of what I can say about it. Plus it’s not out til next June – don’t want to peak too early!
    As for using case circumstances, there would be lots of stories to be told by mixing and matching different things to come up with finctional stories but I just don’t have that sort of story-creating mind. I like my Rebus stories but I just can’t formulate them…. I will apply my mind to the matter when there is more time….