UK science and technology committee warns that crimes may go unsolved thanks to underfunding and outdated technology

The justice system’s ability to convict criminals is at risk following the closure of the UK’s Forensic Science Service (FSS) in March 2012, warn MPs. In a highly critical report, they condemn the government’s ‘hands-off’ approach and the chronic lack of funding for research in forensic science.

The government expected private firms and in-house police labs to take over from the FSS. But a report from the House of Commons science and technology committee found that private companies are struggling to operate in an ‘unstable’ market. Committee chair Andrew Miller MP blames a lack of strategy and singles out the minister for crime prevention, Jeremy Browne MP, for particular criticism.  

Private firms told the committee that they were under pressure from a shrinking market which they attributed partly to police forces bringing forensic work in-house. A ‘lack of transparency’ over police expenditure on forensic science hampered the committee’s investigation into this claim. It recommends a working group to review police accounting practices.

Funding remains as difficult as ever for forensic researchers, the report notes, and the country risks falling behind when it comes to capitalising on new research and technologies. Miller concludes: ‘R&D is the lifeblood of forensic science and yet we heard that serious crimes, like rape and murder, may be going unsolved as we rely on outdated technology. It may take years before we realise the consequences of neglecting R&D.’

A proper strategy for forensic science is long overdue, agrees Sue Ferns of the professionals union Prospect. ‘We have seen the haemorrhage of highly qualified scientists with years of training and experience, and the MPs themselves acknowledge this loss of intellectual wealth.’

Ferns is also concerned that leaving police forces to conduct their own forensic science is a threat to impartiality. ‘Our members who lost their jobs warned the government two years ago that miscarriages of justice will be a major risk,’ she points out. She shares the committee’s concerns about the risks of short-term contracts for private providers in an unstable market, and warns too that the current procurement model fails to motivate private providers to invest in specialist skills.

This report is nothing new, says forensic scientist Niamh Nic Daeid of Strathclyde University, UK. There have been pitiful amounts of funding for decades, she says; Nic Daeid gets most of her funding from Europe, overseas governments and small and medium-sized companies. ‘There has been no funding model and no strategy for a long time. But the closure of the FSS was an opportunity to develop a research strategy and this has been squandered.’

As to the future, Nic Daeid has very little hope that anything will change. ‘The report has raised awareness but it doesn’t seem to be impacting on this government. It is sticking its head in the sand. If we could only build an alliance between researchers, private sector and the police, then we would stand a chance of developing a coherent strategy.’