Research Careers in Forensics

Credit: Los Alamos National Lab

Every year, thousands of life-science graduates and post-graduates are drawn to forensic science by its sexy and exciting portrayal on many television dramas and documentaries--and by its obvious benefit to society. But very few graduates actually make it to be practicing forensic scientists because job opportunities are scarce. Jobs in forensics research, however, are more readily available. Forensics research can be at least as rewarding and exciting as being a forensics practitioner.

Indeed, research has some definite advantages: Forensics researchers are exposed to many of the same investigative techniques as practitioners, but they also get to develop new ones, and the pressure of dealing with the justice system is largely absent. Forensics researchers spend most of their time devising and perfecting new techniques that later will be applied to police work. Although some researchers do end up in court from time to time, they spend far less time than practitioners being badgered by defence attorneys and sitting on courtroom benches, waiting to testify.

Those who wish to pursue forensics research as a career, however, may have to do some police work of their own. Forensics research jobs are rarely found in laboratories and offices with 'forensic science' on the door. Funding, too, can seem as elusive as a seasoned burglar.

Traditionally, forensics research has been carried out in the chemistry, biology, and materials science departments of universities, but today forensics research also occurs in less obvious places like engineering, computer science, and psychology departments, where work is done on topics as diverse as gun detection and cryptography. Even astronomy departments occasionally host forensics work: Researchers at Oxford University are applying their image-resolution-enhancement techniques to crime-surveillance footage.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the only U.K. research council to have a funding programme focussed narrowly on forensics research. The Crime Prevention and Personal Security programme has been running for 4 years and has funded more than 80 projects. Funding over that period has reached about £13 million.

Jim Fraser

Still, "finding funding is still a challenge," says Jim Fraser, head of the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow. "Apart from the EPSRC fund, forensic science does not feature in other funding sources, and the U.K. research councils are showing no interest in changing that". "Because it does not fit in with any one discipline of science research, it continuously fails to get funding despite the fact that the research councils say they support interdisciplinary research." The Forensic Science Service also supports research in academia, but only as a partner to private sector entities. The Home Office funds some research, says Fraser, but not a great deal.

Despite the challenge of finding funding, Fraser is glad he made the change from practitioner to academic researcher 2 years ago. Fraser had held senior positions at police labs across the United Kingdom, but he decided he wanted the freedom to explore new areas and develop new techniques. His career path is not typical: Most forensics researchers in academia have never been practitioners. Fraser and his colleagues at Strathclyde are working on a variety of projects, including the use of an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to trace drugs back to their origins via their unique stable-isotope composition.

"The best bit about being in academia," says Fraser, "is that you get to do all the interesting research without the level of responsibility that practitioners bear, as they are directly involved in the criminal justice process."

"As a [practising] forensic scientist, everything you do has a legal bearing, and you have to be willing to deal with the unpredictability of the real world where you never know when your services will be required," says Fraser. "But as an academic, you have the freedom to explore ideas and express your opinions. You also don't get the unwanted media attention because the press tends to be interested in live cases rather than research." Still, there are some practical burdens: If a bit of research is to be used in practice, it must pass through rigorous field-testing and accreditation procedures.

Although the kind of media attention forensics practitioners attract is largely unwanted, most people enjoy recognition for the work they do. That's a problem for forensics research, says Fraser, because forensics research doesn't get the recognition it deserves. "Our applied research does not attract the same scores in the research assessment exercises [RAEs] as other pure disciplines such as chemistry or biology," he says. Fraser and his staff score high in an RAE in the area of "esteem" because they have worked on some high-profile criminal cases. But they score lower in other areas because their research is not published in high-profile journals but, rather, in less prestigious applied forensic-science journals.

"I guess our work isn't seen by the RAE as particularly novel, from a scientific point of view," says Yvonne Cruickshank, a post-graduate at Strathclyde University. "This is because we often use tried-and-tested methods and apply them to forensics research. But this doesn't make it any less challenging than the pure disciplines."

Cruickshank, who has a degree in biochemistry, worked as a pharmaceutical rep for 5 years before deciding to become a forensic scientist. She earned a master's degree in forensics, then came to Strathclyde in 2002 with the aim of becoming a practitioner. Today, she seems to have the best of both worlds: She is conducting research toward a PhD while also doing some teaching and casework.

But when the time comes to choose between full-time casework and research, she intends to choose research. "Casework can be mundane and requires you to follow protocols," she says. "I enjoy doing it part-time, but I couldn't face doing it full-time … simply follow a procedure day-in day-out." Her research is in toxico-genomics, focussing on how different people metabolise the heroine substitute methadone. She expects her work to help determine the cause of death when an overdose is suspected. Another advantage: In contrast to casework, research, especially in an academic environment, gives her the chance to follow her own ideas and go at her own pace, she says.

Alex Lowe

Forensics in government

Not all forensics research is carried out within the academy. Forensics research opportunities exist in the civil service--but only a few. In the United Kingdom, the Forensic Science Service (FSS) and the Home Office Science Development Branch (HOSDB) both have small research teams. Alex Lowe is one of 56 researchers at FSS, which employs 1400 forensic scientists. Lowe got her position 8 years ago after working at FSS during her master's degree course in forensic science. "I think working in research is more interesting than doing casework," she says, "because with casework, you only work on one specific area of a case, such as examining fibres, for example." She now works on a variety of projects and enjoys the fact that her career allows her to attend conferences and meet other researchers.

Stephen Bleay, who works in the fingerprint group at HOSDB, has a Ph.D. in materials science, not forensics. Bleay's colleagues also have nonforensics degrees, in a variety of disciplines. "HOSDB often takes the view that a fresh perspective on an area is useful, so the degree doesn't have to be in the area you end up working in," Bleay says. "Until I got my current job, none of my research had been in forensic science, although it is an area I have always wanted to work in." Only a few HOSDB staffers have Ph.D.s, but, Bleay says, "I think having a Ph.D. does better equip you with the skills needed for a job like this."

Stephen Bleay

In his previous professional life, Bleay developed stealth materials for the defence industry. His current job couldn't be more different: Instead of designing materials to make things disappear, he now works hard to make things show up. His research has helped the police lift fingerprints from surfaces that they would not have been able to lift them from without his assistance. HOSDB staff members move among the organisation's various research areas, including drug analysis, explosives detection, and video-evidence analysis.

HOSDB and FSS only have small research teams, and other research opportunities in the civil service are not common. "If I were a caseworker, I would have many more opportunities to progress my career, because there are competitor companies that I could go to," says Lowe. "But if you want to do forensics research out of academia, there really are only a couple of places to go."

But whether the job is in academia or the civil service, one thing graduates and post-graduates must bear in mind is that the work isn't as glamorous as what they see on TV. Like other areas of science, work in forensics involves a lot of painstaking laboratory work, and colleagues don't always look as good in their lab coats as the forensics scientists on TV. And then there is the paperwork--especially in the civil service. "While we do get more freedom in our work than caseworkers, our research procedures and techniques still have to be watertight," says Lowe. "My research still needs to be able to stand up in court somewhere down the line, and this requires mountains of paperwork."

Still, it's a great job for the right kind of person. "There is a large amount of bureaucracy," agrees Bleay. "But I find my job very rewarding, as I get to see my work applied in the field, sometimes even within days."

Nadya Anscombe is a freelance science writer in the U.K.

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