Forensic Science: A Dutch and European Perspective


One of the attractions of forensic science is that the results of solving scientific problems are of direct, and often immediate, relevance for society. Most of the forensic research done in the Netherlands is run by the Netherlands Forensic Institute ( NFI), which supplies forensic expertise in areas as diverse as pathology, toxicology, DNA, trace evidence, tool marks, speech, handwriting, documents, computer crime, and more. It is in a unique position as a part of the Ministry of Justice. Together with a good reputation in terms of quality and impartiality, this makes it relatively easy to obtain information from and collaborate with various external Dutch institutes and industries.

Pressure and Publicity

From TV channels such as Discovery, many people will know that most forensic science investigations are part of the investigational phase of a criminal investigation. This working environment creates a push for results that are sometimes used very quickly. You can see the application of your research results in the news the same night. It is important that under these conditions a forensic scientist still takes time to do good science and be impartial in the interpretation of results. In general, an open mind and consideration of alternative hypotheses are of the essence in good forensic science.

Team Workers Needed

This impartiality doesn't mean, though, that during the investigational phase, intermediate results cannot be shared with justice and police colleagues to help guide the process--for example, by excluding suspects. When working on serious, complex crimes, teams of NFI forensic scientists are formed, and excellent communication pathways are set up to ensure effective and efficient cooperation with police and justice colleagues. Experienced forensic scientists operate as team leaders. Working closely in a multidisciplinary team with police and forensic science colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds (chemistry, physics, engineering, toxicology, pathology, language teaching, psychology, computer science, arts) can be stimulating and generate cross-pollination.

How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Most NFI scientists come from outside the forensic science field. I, for example, did my Ph.D. research in an institute that focused on fundamental physical problems. Although it was a wonderful and stimulating period in an excellent research institute, I decided that the time between bench and application was too long in fundamental research to satisfy me for the rest of my career. After spending another 8years at the central research laboratory of a large international chemical company, I decided to become a forensic scientist. As a forensic industrial chemical products expert, I am still using my experience from the days in the laboratory almost daily.

Further training as a forensic scientist usually includes specific modules, such as training to testify in court facing a hostile defense lawyer, as well as specialist-material courses, such as the in-depth paint chemistry course I took as part of my training to become a forensic paint expert. A special forensic examination concludes the training. Continuing professional growth is encouraged within the NFI, and every 3 years (as part of a certification procedure), each forensic scientist demonstrates his or her continuing proficiency through forensic investigations made, articles published, conferences attended, and so forth.

Europe Grows Together

Certification of forensic scientists is an international trend. In a few years' time, we can expect to see some kind of European certification, supported by the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (ENFSI). This reflects both the trend toward harmonization, as well as increasing pressure for quality assurance within European institutes. Although judicial and penal systems vary widely in Europe, the more objective forensic science techniques are rapidly becoming harmonized so that sometimes even the same specialized apparatus is used throughout the forensic community (e.g., refractive index measurements of glass).

One of the driving forces is the international cooperation in expert working groups as part of the ENFSI structure. In these groups, professionals decide what should be international best practices in the field. Furthermore, common databases (e.g., car paints) are built up, with all participants taking part of the load in supplying reference samples and information as well as making standardized measurements.

This international cooperation (including forensic science organizations from other continents) will grow even more, in my opinion, and is another attractive aspect of working in this field. Within the next 10 to 20 years, I expect some kind of central European forensic science institute to be established. Such an institute will serve as a center of reference and will be equipped with various specialized expensive instruments and experts that are too costly for each separate institute.

In the short term, an alternative could be some kind of specialization of institutes (apart from the general forensic science facilities), so that they share complementary instruments and expertise. NFI, for example, uses the specialist laser ablation/inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer technique, which is still too costly for most forensic science institutes. At the start of the NFI project, cooperation and access to this technique were offered to colleagues in other institutes. A French colleague did part of his practical work for an M.Sc. degree at NFI using this technique.

A Vibrant Field of Science

From the above, it will be clear that forensic science is a vibrant field in which emerging new techniques are swiftly applied. The need for forensic scientists is still growing due to the increasing importance of technical evidence in the penal process. The rapid development of forensic DNA techniques and the evidentiary strength of the resulting data have been important factors in this. Progress in forensic science will be focused especially on DNA in the coming years; it might become possible to predict characteristics such as the height or hair color of a criminal from DNA evidence left at the scene of the crime.

At the same time, the growth of the DNA forensics field can offer strong internal competition for resources within forensic science institutes with limited budgets. Particularly in some smaller regional labs, this necessitates difficult decisions. At NFI, we are fortunate in that for a number of years we have already been growing, so that we can expand the DNA field and at the same time liberate resources for development of other fields, such as wildlife forensics. (See also Next Wave's articles on wildlife forensics elsewhere in this feature.)

The Dutch government has planned a strong investment in the total penal process, leading to both a quantitative as well as a qualitative expansion in the forensic science field. As part of these developments, NFI's operations will become more businesslike, offering transparent forensic products to its partners with well-defined cost structures and delivery times. At higher management levels, agreements will be made on the yearly production of the various units, as well as other parameters. Furthermore, within NFI, it has been decided to use part of the research capacity for technical specialists, mostly as part of a project to apply new outside techniques to forensic science applications and develop well-validated methods.

As for the future, I am sure that there will always be a need, and room for, investigations for which some dedicated method development is needed. And the backlog of samples to be analyzed is growing rapidly. Chemical & Engineering News ( issue of 11/01) even estimated that in the United States in the next decade, about 10,000 additional forensic scientists will be needed! Although, in my opinion, this number appears too large, it indicates the upward trend. In the Netherlands, there will be a growing demand both for scientists who will optimize the process of forensic research, as well as for scientists who will work on more unique and complex cases for which no validated forensic method is yet available. The prospects for new forensic scientists are bright.

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