Word-leading forensic science agency to close

By Anna Sandiford 18/12/2010

One of the world’s leading forensic science agencies, the British Forensic Science Service (FSS), will close the remainder of its laboratories by 2012. To quote a recent article, “The FSS is a government-owned company … that sells its services to customers including police forces in England and Wales. The government has now promised to sell off as much of its operations as possible to the private sector. Although it had previously been suggested that the company would be privatized, it is currently losing £2 million (US$3 million) a month, and a recent National Audit Office report put its value at “a nominal figure of £1,000″ in 2008—09 – down from £67 million in 2007—08.

The FSS has faced stiff competition over the last decade as private companies have entered the market and the police forces of England and Wales have put their forensic science requirements out for tender. In many cases, the cheaper bid wins rather than quality of service or proximity of the laboratory to the police force in question. The FSS works much the way that ESR does in New Zealand – providing services to their main client, the Police. The FSS hasn’t been able to compete with the private sector and the government now seems to have admitted defeat. All of the forensic science services for the England and Wales criminal justice system will now be met by private companies. However, there won’t be enough jobs in the private sector to accommodate the soon-to-be-unemployed forensic scientists, some of whom have an enormous body of knowledge, skills and experience. As the UK Forensic Science Society stated a couple of years ago, experience is not necessarily expertise although expertise is based on experience.

I think that in such an environment, dominated by private industry, regulation and accreditation of laboratories and individual scientists is more important than it was before – the justice system has to maintain confidence in the forensic science that is being presented in court. As it happens, the Forensic Science Regulator has published the final draft Codes of Practice, which are the standards designed to maintain confidence in forensic science. At least forensic science provision in England & Wales is transparent – the court system is used to science being tested by both the Crown and the Defence. New Zealand is somewhat more restrained in its approach to assessing science for the courtroom.

The loss of the FSS is, to me, a huge loss for forensic science, not only in England and Wales but also globally. Much forensic science research was undertaken and published by the FSS in conjunction with academic institutes in Britain and overseas; scientists at the FSS have a lot of credibility with funding bodies. ESR currently undertakes a reasonable amount of forensic science research through students and its partnership with the University of Auckland. If that were lost, the majority of New Zealand’s forensic science research would disappear.

Who is going to pick up the baton of forensic science research? If forensic science research does not continue at at least the same pace (which some would say is less than it was ten years ago), funding available for it will diminish and the ever-decreasing circle of reduced available funding and reduced research undertaken will begin to spiral for another branch of science.

0 Responses to “Word-leading forensic science agency to close”

  • I guess it could be argued that the private sector will fund forensic research in order to develop advantages over their competitors.
    I completely agree with your disappointment over this development however. I think there is great value in having government run services as they should focus on quality and accuracy. Private providers where the focus is money and economy make me nervous as it seems to me there would be the tendency to cut corners to save money. Also if it all comes down to profit margins would there be the temptation for people to be able to “buy” the results that they want.
    Given the current NZ governments attraction to “efficiency” and history of privatisation, one has to wonder what the future holds for the ESR.

  • I dont think this is a very good idea, i know it is causing a loss in money but i am studing at school and i am interested in going into forensic science. Without forensic science more crimes will be easier to commit and crime will be at an all time high, vaarious types of crime has evolved over the years and it is becoming harder and harder to catch criminals. Without forensic science cases like Jack the ripper will be apearing round all over the country.