Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report


5 Education and Training

University courses

92. The number of forensic science courses available at UK universities has increased dramatically over the last five or ten years. A search of the Universities and Colleges Admission Service website for "forensic" undergraduate courses produces a list of 401 degree courses at 57 universities.[203] These range from "Forensic Science" through to "Forensic Science and Human Resource Management" (Keele University), "Citizenship Studies and Forensic Science" (London South Bank University) and "Football Technology and Forensic Computing" (Staffordshire University). Various witnesses told us that the expansion in provision of forensic science degrees "does not reflect the limited employment prospects in forensic science nor is it in response to employers in the sector".[204] Rather, we heard that the growth was a result of student interest in forensic science, which was, at least in part, stimulated by television dramas featuring forensic scientists and high profile coverage of forensic science in books and by the media.[205],[206] We are currently conducting an inquiry into strategic science provision in UK universities which will address the wider issues surrounding the action of market forces on science provision.

93. A recent report by SEMTA, the Sector Skills body for science, engineering, manufacturing and technology, on forensic science and higher education estimated that there are now approximately 3,000 forensic science undergraduates, which means that, in two years' time, 1,500 people are expected to graduate with a Forensic Science BSc.[207] This needs to be considered in the context of the evidence we heard that the already limited opportunities for people seeking employment in the forensic science sector were diminishing.[208] The SEMTA report notes that Forensic Alliance received 500 applications for 30 posts, while Clive Wolfendale, Deputy Chief Constable of North Wales Police, told us that in a recent selection process they had 50 applicants for three volume crime scene examiner jobs.[209],[210] In a sector with very few employers these success rates reflect very restricted opportunities. Furthermore, Mr Wolfendale pointed out that "About half the individuals coming forward had BSc forensic science and for the three posts on offer we did not take any of them".[211]Table 2: Numbers of staff employed in the forensic science sector in the UK
Employer Number of employees
Forensic Science Practitioners 3,430
FSS2,500
LGC700
Forensic Alliance 140
Police 990
Fire 190
Education 60
Total 4,680

Source: SEMTA, Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education 2004, November 2004

94. Indeed, we heard extensive evidence that a large proportion of the forensic science courses on offer provide poor preparation for a career in forensic science. Clive Wolfendale called the majority of forensic science degree courses "a savage waste of young people's time and parents' money".[212] ACPO also commented in written evidence on the fact that "degree courses and other higher education opportunities are of widely differing standards and content, often hybrid in order to attract a wide range of students, often unsuited to the needs of employers, and sometimes encouraging unrealistic employment expectations among students".[213] CRFP told us that "A forensic scientist first has to be a scientist" and asserted that there was "at present no qualification which, of itself, equips an individual for forensic practice".[214] These observations are all in accordance with the finding of the SEMTA report on forensic science and higher education that "Both Forensic Science and other science employers consider a degree in Chemistry or some other pure science to be preferable to a degree in Forensic Science".[215]

95. We asked the Home Office whether they shared the concerns of the other witnesses about the quality of forensic science education. The Minister told us: "What worries me—and obviously we are not the lead department in this area—is if young people apply for courses and, at the end of the day, those courses do not equip them in what they expect to be their future career".[216] In view of the Department for Education and Skills' (DfES) responsibilities in this area, we asked the Home Office what discussions it had had with colleagues at the DfES regarding the quality of forensic science undergraduate courses. The Home Office response was as follows: "The Home Office has made no approach to colleagues, nor has that Department sought Home Office views on the quality of forensic science courses".[217] The two largest employers of forensic scientists in the UK are the police and the Forensic Science Service, responsibility for which falls within the remit of the Home Office. It is disappointing that, in view of the concerns expressed to us by the police and the wider forensic science community over standards in forensic science education, the Home Office has taken no action to communicate the existence of these problems to colleagues at DfES. We regret this lack of co-ordination between the Home Office and DfES.

96. Despite the criticisms levelled at the providers of forensic science higher education courses, there are many reputable courses on offer. The University of Central Lancashire, for example, told us that the employment rates for graduates of its forensic science course had been "excellent".[218] Tracking of the University's first graduating cohort of 98 students revealed that, of the 87% who replied, none was unemployed or not in full time study.[219] In addition, it needs to be recognised that there is a wide range of roles associated with the forensic science sector, all necessitating different skills and levels of education and training. A scientific background, preferably a chemistry (or other pure science) degree followed by a Masters, is essential for forensic scientists and researchers. For SOCOs, "Basic literacy and numeracy combined with good inter-personal skills are valued" by the police.[220] According to the Metropolitan Police Service, "footwear and ballistics examination […] require pattern recognition more akin to that of the fingerprint expert".[221] Furthermore, for most forensic science roles, educational qualifications are just a starting point; on-the-job training and experience are ultimately essential.

ACCREDITATION SCHEME

97. The Forensic Science Society told us that its increasing apprehension over "the huge growth in educational courses in forensic science" was behind the development of its accreditation programme for university forensic science courses.[222] To date, 24 universities are participating in this programme and the Society told us that it planned "to continue and expand this program in partnership with other organisations that have a common interest in setting standards such as other professional bodies and the sector skills organisations".[223] The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) was emphatic about the need for quality control of courses through an accreditation system, but more dubious about whether the Forensic Science Society's scheme in its current incarnation could meet that need.[224] The main criticisms of UCLAN related to the expense of the scheme, the fact that "it does not consider National Occupational Standards, despite these being enshrined in many courses", and the concern that "the scheme is not robust enough to distinguish between those courses that are worthy of accreditation and those that offer Forensic Science education on the cheap".[225] We trust that the Forensic Science Society will take on board the criticisms of major providers of forensic science courses in the further development of its accreditation scheme.

98. The success of the accreditation scheme requires not just the participation of the relevant universities but also buy-in from the main employers of forensic science graduates (see table 2). The two main employers, the police and the Forensic Science Service, have both expressed their support for the scheme. However, when we asked whether they would give preferential treatment to graduates of accredited courses when recruiting staff, they both said that they would not do this. ACPO told us that it had had no input into the Forensic Science Society's accreditation scheme, noting that "graduate qualifications are not sought in respect of most of the roles, e.g., crime scene examiner or fingerprint officer. […] There are no plans, therefore, for ACPO to give preferential treatment to graduates of accredited courses".[226] The FSS, which employs forensic scientists who are qualified to at least graduate level, told us: "The FSS criterion for recruiting scientists at trainee Reporting Officer level remains—a good science degree (chemistry, biochemistry, genetics etc). Any 'forensic science' qualification should be at Masters level. It follows that applicants from FS [Forensic Science] Society accredited courses would be unlikely to be given any preference".[227] Although we recognise the need for some kind of quality control system to be put in place, the fact that the two main employers in the forensic science sector will not give preferential treatment to graduates of accredited courses somewhat undermines the value of the Forensic Science Society's scheme. Furthermore, it sends out a confusing message to students and may give them the erroneous impression that opting for an accredited course will automatically increase their chances of subsequent employment in the sector.

IMPLICATIONS FOR PURE SCIENCE

99. As noted above, employers of science graduates both within the forensic science sector and outside of it have expressed a preference for graduates of pure science degrees, in particular, chemistry graduates. Whilst forensic science higher education is undergoing rapid expansion, other branches of science have been experiencing a marked drop in popularity. There have been high profile closures of chemistry departments, e.g. at the University of Exeter, and other higher education institutions are ceasing to offer chemistry except in support of forensic science, e.g. Anglia Polytechnic University.[228] Interestingly, the SEMTA report found that 44% of forensic science students would have studied another science subject if they had not been able to study forensic science, with biology and chemistry being the most popular choices.[229] This tallies with the fact that 45% of the students surveyed cited an "interest in science" as the main reason for deciding to study forensic science.[230] The SEMTA report also observes that women outnumber men on forensic sciences courses by a ratio of 2:1, making forensic science the most popular science-based degree course with women.[231]

100. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as representing the siphoning off of potential students of chemistry and other pure science degrees into forensic science. On the other hand, it could be seen as offering a route to increase the attractiveness of science education, particularly for women, who are traditionally under-represented in the physical sciences. Professor Steve Haswell, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Hull, commented that "forensic science courses are tracking students into science at some level that perhaps would not have been there at all".[232] Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys concurred, saying "kids are very excited about forensic science now for whatever reason and if we can use that to bring them into the basic sciences I think that is extremely valuable".[233] We agree. There is an opportunity to harness the excitement surrounding forensic science to promote interest in science more generally. Academically rigorous and scientifically sound joint honours degrees in forensic science and chemistry, biology etc. could build on the appeal of forensic science while providing students with the analytical skills and scientific background required by employers. These degrees need to be developed in close collaboration with the main employers in order to ensure that graduates would be well qualified for the roles for which these organisations recruit.

101. The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) also drew attention to the role that forensic science can play in supporting chemistry within higher education institutions: "In our case, although our chemistry department was closed in the 1990s, we have been able to retain research and education in chemistry within our department: without the Forensic Science course, this would not have been possible […] Indeed, we have expanded chemistry provision to support forensic science, and are now able to re-open BSc (Hons) Chemistry in 2006/7".[234] Nevertheless, UCLAN described the demise of chemistry in higher education as "a grave national concern for large numbers of other employers [as well as those in the forensic science sector]".[235] We recommend that the Forensic Science Society, SEMTA and the main employers work together with the Royal Society of Chemistry to promote an understanding of the value of chemistry as a route into forensic science. This could be done, for example, through visits into schools by practising forensic scientists.

Training of forensic scientists

102. In the main, we did not hear criticism of the quantity or quality of training given to practising forensic scientists. However, there was some suggestion that LGC and Forensic Alliance tended to recruit trained scientists from the FSS rather than training them from scratch themselves. The FSS told us that "Until recently, the FSS was the sole source of trained forensic scientists in England and Wales" and noted that "Training costs can run to £100k per individual".[236] Forensic Alliance refuted these allegations, saying that it was a "myth" that the FSS was "the only training ground for forensic scientists" and pointing out that it had "trained 25% of its staff from scratch and augmented the training of many others".[237] Forensic Alliance also told us that it now has "an advanced training facility running carefully structured courses covering all scientific aspects of forensic science, crime scene investigation and court work".[238]

103. The popularity of forensic science means that most employers have plenty of applicants to choose from to fill their posts. Nevertheless, we received evidence of skills shortages in a few specialities. The Royal Society of Edinburgh commented that in the field of forensic psychology there was the "acute problem with the training and a shortage of supply of suitably qualified personnel".[239] In addition, ACPO told us of difficulties in accessing experts "who are up to date in the rapidly moving areas of digital forensics".[240] We also heard that Forensic Alliance and LGC recruit a small percentage of scientists from overseas (approximately 9% in the case of Forensic Alliance).[241] Forensic Alliance explained that this was "partly because there is a shortage of UK scientists but […] also very much to enrich the scientific culture in this country because scientists coming from overseas bring with them a slightly different mix of skills and experience".[242] Increasing competition in the forensic services market at both the national and international level could well increase the proportion of overseas scientists working in the UK. The Forensic Science Advisory Council could play a useful role in helping to standardise training for forensic scientists working in the UK. Introducing a requirement for CRFP registration for court-going scientists, as discussed in paragraph 139, should also help to ensure that scientists working in the UK criminal justice system have the necessary skills and experience, irrespective of where they trained originally.

Police training

104. Professor Jim Fraser, President of the Forensic Science Society and a former police Scientific Support Manager, told us in oral evidence that "The documented evidence in relation to police knowledge of forensic science, in terms of making the best use of forensic science, is consistently clear, that their knowledge needs to improve and therefore their training needs to improve".[243] He noted that "senior investigating officers in homicides and specialist elements of policing are usually much better trained" and said that the "real difficulty" was how to get an understanding of "the level of sophistication of some of the scientific techniques or the investigative value" at ground level in the average police force.[244]

105. The documented evidence referred to by Professor Fraser includes the 2000 HMIC thematic inspection report, Under the Microscope, which identified the absence of a comprehensive training strategy within the police and highlighted a need for both awareness training amongst operational officers and better specialist training for forensic practitioners in the police service.[245] HMIC set out overall guidance on the training of specialist and non-specialist staff in the report. The Public Accounts Committee also identified problems with police training in forensic science in its 2003 Report, Improving service delivery: the Forensic Science Service, commenting that whilst the FSS "contributes to national police training courses and provides training directly to individual forces as and when they request it […] Only half of police forces undertook such training in 2001-02".[246]

106. In response to Under the Microscope, the ACPO Forensic Science Training Working Group (part of the forensic science training portfolio) was set up and steps were taken to reduce the fragmentation of police training. ACPO told us that the service has also "responded to the need to keep patrol officers updated" and revised the material delivered to basic recruits.[247] An interactive training package, known as "Think Forensic" has been developed for awareness training of officers outside the training period and this is in the process of being updated, under the leadership of the FSS. Despite this, ACPO acknowledged that much still needed to be done, warning us that "The scale of the problem should not be underestimated".[248] ACPO summarised the problem as follows: "With all the other training that police officers and staff need and the turnover we experience, we need novel and different means of raising awareness and increasing knowledge, which minimise time lost from front line policing duties".[249] This view was echoed by the Metropolitan Police Service who told us in written evidence that "The knowledge levels and awareness of all police and criminal justice personnel as a major enabler to the effective use of forensic science should not be underestimated. Raising awareness and ensuring that forensic science is used effectively is a critical part of building capacity in the MPS".[250]

107. We welcome the actions taken by ACPO to improve police training in forensic science and urge it to continue, and enhance, these efforts in the future. Forensic science is not just a means of proving someone's guilt or innocence. If used properly, forensic techniques can serve as vital intelligence tools to underpin the entire investigative process. Forensic science has a key role to play in enabling the intelligence-led approach to policing embodied by the National Intelligence Model. It is thus essential that police training in forensic science is delivered within the context of the National Intelligence Model. This should help to ensure that forensic awareness becomes embedded in the wider police force, rather than being confined to those in specialist roles or who have had specific training.

108. A further weakness identified by Under the Microscope and Under the Microscope Refocused was the "lack of full engagement amongst Chief Officers" in forensic science issues.[251] ACPO told us that "the situation has improved significantly" since then with each ACPO Forensic Science Sub-Committee regional group now having an ACPO chair.[252] ACPO nevertheless acknowledged that there was no room for complacency and commented that "it has sometimes proved difficult to achieve the required level of ACPO involvement".[253] It is encouraging to see that progress has been made in identifying ACPO-level "champions" for forensic science. There is now a need to ensure that these officers are properly briefed and fully engaged. We recommend that the Home Office, ACPO and the Association of Police Authorities ensure that regular seminars are held to keep those Chief Officers with responsibilities for forensic matters in a force up to date and active.

Identification of best practice

109. Professor Jim Fraser, President of the Forensic Science Society told us in oral evidence: "There are a large number of police forces and […] a lot of unexplained variation" in their use of forensic science, noting the fact that "There is no model for good practice".[254] Under the Microscope Refocused, a follow-up to the 2000 report, also observed that there was still a great deal of variation in performance of different forces.[255] The report further highlighted the fact that "Many forces still have a great deal of difficulty in managing the process of turning identifications into detections and this is rooted in a paucity of quality performance information".[256] The Home Affairs Select Committee has also recently commented on the "unacceptable variation in the adoption of DNA technology by individual forces" and recommended that the Government review police use of DNA, with a view to addressing the growing problem of multiple identities associated with a single DNA profile on the NDNAD.[257]

110. We asked ACPO who had responsibility for the collation and dissemination of best practice in the use of forensic science by the police. ACPO described a "somewhat confused picture with agencies having overlapping responsibilities" and acknowledged the need for "Further rationalisation".[258] ACPO listed nine distinct organisations or committees with a role to play in this area: these are summarised in table 3. ACPO specifically identified the need to reduce overlap between the roles of HMIC, the Police Standards Unit, the National Centre for Policing Excellence and the National Policing Improvement Agency.[259] The multiplicity of organisations involved in identifying and disseminating good practice in forensic science to the police is unhelpful and wasteful. We support ACPO's view that there is a need to rationalise the functions of these bodies and recommend that a single organisation be given overall responsibility for co-ordinating best practice in forensic science for the police. This should be done without delay to prevent further duplication of effort and expenditure. This should additionally facilitate uptake of best practice by ensuring that there is one clear and consistent message conveyed to forces.Table 3: Entities involved in identifying and disseminating best practice to the police
Entity Role
Within ACPO
ACPO Forensic Science Sub-Committee (FSSC) Has authority on behalf of ACPO for ensuring that national guidance and policy is maintained.

Encompasses various thematic portfolio groups and National Boards.

Sponsors and maintains DNA Good Practice Guide in conjunction with NDNAD Board.

NDNAD BoardChaired by ACPO Forensic Science portfolio holder.

Has overall authority and responsibility for police practice and policy in relation to DNA matters.

Issues policy directions and guidance in liaison with FSS.

National Fingerprint Board Set up in 2003 under auspices of FSSC and chaired by ACPO.

Has overall authority and responsibility for police practice and policy in relation to Fingerprint matters.

Beginning to issue policy directions and guidance.

Crime Scene Management Board Set up in 2004, chaired by ACPO.

Has overall authority and responsibility for police practice and policy in relation to crime scene preservation and management.

Outside ACPO
CentrexTrading name for Central Police Development and Training Agency, formerly National Police Training.

In liaison with above bodies has responsibility for overall design and accreditation of training to meet force requirements.

National Centre for Policing Excellence Under auspices of Centrex has authority under Police Reform Act to issue Doctrine, Codes of Practice, and Guidance on policing matters.

There are ongoing negotiations between the National Centre for Policing Excellence and FSSC over a project to produce a Physical Evidence Doctrine.

Police Standards Unit Specific role to improve performance within the police service.

FSSC has co-operated with the Police Standards Unit on several major projects mostly arising from the DNA Expansion Programme.

Over the last two years the Unit has been working with Derbyshire Constabulary to produce and roll out a diagnostic tool for the improvement of forensic processes and timeliness using commercial simulation software.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) Thematic, Baseline and Basic Command Unit inspection programmes ensure that forces are using forensic science effectively and applying the most up-to-date techniques and processes.
National Policing Improvement Agency Expected that this newly-proposed Agency will take on responsibility for ensuring that nationally agreed good practice on certain policing issues is implemented in all forces.

Data source: ACPO

Implications of GovCo/PPP

111. More than 90% of police training in forensic science is provided in-house, with less than 5% being provided by the FSS and private sector suppliers, respectively.[260] The majority of the in-house training is delivered through two national training centres: the Centrex facility at Harperley Hall, Durham, and the Crime Academy used by the Metropolitan Police Service.[261] Internal training is more likely to improve the ability of police to make the most of their in-house forensic services than external training and should therefore be more cost effective. Nonetheless, the small proportion of police training in forensic science provided by the FSS and other forensic suppliers is important since it (a) gives the police an opportunity to learn how to make best use of the external forensic services that they procure, and (b) injects external knowledge into police training, which is especially important for specialist areas that rely on external expertise. ACPO told us that they tended "to use forensic science providers on demand".[262] We were pleased to hear that, for the most part, forensic science providers were "keen to provide training without too much emphasis on generating income".[263]

112. We noted in paragraph 33 the concern that, if the FSS became a PPP, the external training currently given to customers on a cost-neutral basis would have a profit element introduced.[264] The Royal Society of Edinburgh told us, for example, "If a significant commercial cost is involved in [the customer] training process, then bodies such as police authorities could be deterred from availing themselves of such services".[265]

113. We asked the FSS what changes it would make to the availability and charging basis for training for the police and other customers once it became a GovCo. The FSS replied that its Customer Training and Development Unit had "undergone development over the last year and more changes are planned".[266] As a result, the number and range of forensic training courses and seminars available to police and other customers in the criminal justice system would increase. The charging scheme for customers would move from a block fee based on FSS staff costs to a charge per attendee with discounts for high users. The FSS told us that this would bring it "into line with other training organisations such as Centrex". [267] In addition, the FSS plans to "continue to provide some training at no charge and seek external funding from sources such as the Home Office to sponsor the production and supply of training packages and courses".[268]

114. The present level of awareness training amongst police uniform and detective staff is insufficient and needs to be improved and increased, particularly with regard to how to properly protect crime scenes for examination. Any reduction in the availability or comprehensiveness of training offered by the FSS would therefore be of concern. Training is also a resource-intensive activity for suppliers, taking skilled staff away from the bench. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that the increasingly competitive market in forensic services will incorporate a market in forensic training: spreading awareness of the possible use of forensic science should make good commercial sense. Furthermore, as noted above, there is a relatively small percentage of police training currently delivered by the FSS, and it is by no means clear that development of the FSS as a GovCo and potentially as a PPP will threaten the quality or affordability of customer training provided by the FSS (and its competitors). The proposed Forensic Science Advisory Council should be well placed to monitor the situation and advise of any need for intervention, should it arise.

115. The FSS also fulfils an advisory role to the police and, as illustrated by table 3, plays a part in drawing up guidance and best practice for them. Once the FSS is developed as a GovCo, this relationship may need to be reviewed. Indeed, ACPO told us: "The police service has hitherto relied upon the advice of the Chief Executive or Chief Scientist of the Forensic Science Service to provide advice as to the reliability of forensic techniques […] when the FSS moves into private sector classification and operates in a competitive market, for commercial reasons it will no longer be appropriate to seek or receive advice in this way".[269] This, once again, emphasises the need for an independent regulator and source of advice. The Forensic Science Advisory Council will be essential for ensuring that the police continue to have access to independent and impartial expert advice on forensic science in a competitive marketplace.


203   http://www.ucas.ac.uk/  Back

204   Ev 104 Back

205   SEMTA, Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education 2004, 2004 Back

206   CSI shows give 'unrealistic view', BBC News, 21 February 2005 and FOS 14 Back

207   SEMTA, Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education 2004, 2004 Back

208   Ev 114 Back

209   SEMTA, Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education 2004, 2004 Back

210   Q 293 Back

211   Q 293 Back

212   Q 305 Back

213   Ev 130 Back

214   Ev 108 Back

215   SEMTA, Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education 2004, 2004 Back

216   Q 591 Back

217   Ev 204 Back

218   Ev 190 Back

219   Ev 190 Back

220   Ev 199 Back

221   Ev 115 Back

222   Ev 157 Back

223   Ev 157 Back

224   Ev 190 Back

225   Ev 191 Back

226   Ev 199 Back

227   Ev 177 Back

228   CSI fans force chemistry on to the back burner, The Daily Telegraph, 1 December 2004 Back

229   SEMTA, Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education 2004, 2004 Back

230   As above. Back

231   As above. Back

232   Q 361 Back

233   Q 363 Back

234   Ev 190 Back

235   Ev 190 Back

236   Ev 155 Back

237   Ev 198 Back

238   Ev 120 Back

239   Ev 136 Back

240   Ev 201 Back

241   Ev 198 Back

242   Q 250 Back

243   Q 169 Back

244   Q 169 Back

245   Home Office, Under the Microscope, Her Majesty's Inspector David Blakey, July 2000 Back

246   Public Accounts Committee, Improving service delivery: the Forensic Science Service, 2003 Back

247   Ev 200 Back

248   Ev 200 Back

249   Ev 200 Back

250   Ev 115 Back

251   Home Office, Under the Microscope Refocused, Her Majesty's Inspector David Blakey, June 2002 Back

252   Ev 200 Back

253   Ev 200 Back

254   Q 170 Back

255   Home Office, Under the Microscope Refocused, Her Majesty's Inspector David Blakey, June 2002 Back

256   Home Office, Under the Microscope Refocused, Her Majesty's Inspector David Blakey, June 2002 Back

257   Home Affairs Select Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2004-05, Police Reform, HC 370-I Back

258   Ev 200 Back

259   Ev 200 Back

260   Ev 200 Back

261   Ev 200 Back

262   Ev 200 Back

263   Ev 200 Back

264   Ev 122 Back

265   Ev 136 Back

266   Ev 176 Back

267   Ev 176 Back

268   Ev 176 Back

269   Ev 201 Back


 
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