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.