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.