The Forensic Science Service - Science and Technology Committee Contents


4  Research and development (R&D)

Home Office Review of R&D

166.  On 27 January 2011, over a month after the announcement that the FSS would be wound down, the Home Office announced a review of forensic science research and development (R&D), to be led by the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the Home Office and the Forensic Science Regulator (FSR). The consultation document stated that "it is important that the Home Office's approach to forensic science includes an informed analysis of the relevant forensic science research and development".[232] The aim of the review was to provide Ministers with advice on the current and likely future status of forensic science research and development in the UK and to make other recommendations as appropriate.[233] The report was originally expected to report to Home Office Ministers by the end of April 2011,[234] but to date has not yet been published.[235]

167.  The Home Office stated that the review was "not directly related to the wind-down" of the FSS.[236] Prospect, in its written submission, stated that:

our members are understandably sceptical of the review's intent given that a genuine review would be expected to inform a decision whereas in this case the outcome has already been announced.[237]

THE HOME OFFICE'S CONSIDERATION OF THE IMPACTS TO R&D

168.  As part of our inquiry we considered whether the Government had sought the advice of the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) prior to the decision to wind down the FSS. The Guidance for Chief Scientific Advisers and their officials, published by the Government Office for Science (GO Science) states that one of the CSA's roles is:

performing an independent challenge function to the department, ensuring that science and engineering evidence and advice is robust, relevant and high quality and that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that policy making is underpinned by science and engineering.[238]

169.  Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office, explained his role and level of independence from the Home Office:

We are appointed as civil servants. [...] It is my full-time job. We are appointed under the code of practice for scientific advisers. I am a member of the group chaired by Sir John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and independence is written into my job description.

I have a threefold role. First of all, I provide scientific advice to the Home Office, Ministers and officials on any scientific matter relevant to our work. Secondly, I head the Home Office science group, which is a group of about 400 people who work in every scientific discipline, including economics, statistics, physical sciences, social sciences and so on; to advise on Home Office policy matters. Thirdly, I am a member of the group of scientific advisers across Government, which gives me an over-arching background to the work that I do. I take my independence extremely seriously and I am expected to be independent. That is the whole point of my job.[239]

170.  When asked whether he had been consulted on the decision to wind down the FSS, Professor Silverman stated that:

I was told about the decision a couple of weeks in advance; I am not sure exactly how many. I think it was in late November, or possibly mid-November. But I was sworn to secrecy until the decision was announced. I was informed and John Beddington [the Government Chief Scientific Adviser] was as well. [...] We were told it was going to happen. We were not consulted, as such, in advance of the decision being made, but we were informed. When the decision was made, we had been tipped off in advance.

My understanding, at the time and now, is that the decision was taken on legal and commercial grounds and that it is not within the Chief Scientific Adviser's remit to advise on those matters. Therefore, I did not see the process as unreasonable.[240]

171.  When scrutinising the Government's proposal to change the FSS into a Public-Private Partnership in 2005, our predecessor Committee noted that "the low visibility of the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser is a source of concern, particularly in view of the history of weak scientific culture in the department".[241] A Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) has unique independence and is therefore, rightly, expected to provide a crucial challenge function to the Department. It may not be within the CSA's remit to advise on legal and commercial matters, but it is certainly within his remit to advise on scientific matters relating to the closure of the FSS, a Home Office-funded centre of scientific excellence. We consider the CSA's satisfaction with his exclusion from the decision-making process and his failure to challenge the decision to be unacceptable. This is a further demonstration of the ongoing weak scientific culture in the Home Office.

172.  When we asked James Brokenshire MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime Prevention, whether he had made any assessment of the likely impact of the FSS's closure on forensic science R&D in the UK before the decision to close the FSS was made, he replied that:

There was no formal assessment of the R&D elements as such but I was very conscious, in making this decision, of the potential impact on R&D. For example, if we had gone down the restructuring route, one of the things I was specifically concerned about was the fact that R&D investment would have been significantly squeezed as a consequence of taking that option rather than any other option. While there was no formal assessment, it would be completely wrong to characterise the decision as not considering or not taking account of the issues of R&D and future investment. Indeed, I am very conscious of that and that is why Professor Silverman has been engaged to conduct the review he is conducting at the moment.[242]

173.  Given that Prospect and its members were sceptical of its timing, we asked whether the review of R&D should have preceded the FSS wind-down decision and announcement. Professor Silverman replied that:

It is obvious that the review was prompted because of the attention drawn by the closure of the FSS. There is no doubt about that. If you had started a review before the closure was announced, it would have signalled that something was up. I don't think you could do that. It is right that we should have a landscape within which we can now conduct a review. To conduct a review against a changing landscape would be difficult. For example, I wouldn't have suggested starting the review before the decision was announced. Once I was told that the decision was going to be made, it made sense not to commission a review until after the decision had been made. Then we have a landscape within which we can see what is going on.[243]

174.   In answer to the same question, the Minister responded "no" and explained that:

The reason I say that is that the FSS is only one part of this. You need to look at the academic institutions and at the investment that private companies and others are undertaking as well. Also, consider that we were presented with a situation where the FSS, as a consequence of the Companies Act, were saying to us that they were in a zone of insolvency and that they would be at risk of going into uncontrolled administration unless some form of action was taken by the Home Office, which would not have allowed a proper review, at that stage, of these issues. That is why I talk about this being a commercial decision. It was not that it was only focused on commercial issues, but it was driven by the fact that the FSS was presenting itself as being in a zone of insolvency and of physically running out of cash. [...]

I see the review that Professor Silverman is undertaking, which will be coming forward shortly, as instrumental in setting out where forensic research is at the moment, how it may need to be better joined up and how we need to have a better understanding of that. But I see that as distinct from the decisions that the Home Office had to take in relation to the FSS, albeit that, obviously, the FSS does undertake some R&D investment work at this point in time.[244]

175.  We are concerned that no formal assessment was made of the impact of closing down the FSS on forensic science R&D before the decision was made and announced. We have not seen any evidence of an informal assessment. We are very concerned and disappointed that the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office was not consulted prior to the decision to wind down the FSS.

176.  We were given various reasons for the timing of the Home Office Review of R&D. The Chief Scientific Adviser implied that one reason may have been a preservation of confidentiality and that the Review may have been prompted by the attention drawn by the closure of the FSS. The Minister told us that a lack of time was the driver. The reasons for the timing should be clarified.

177.  The relationship between recommendations made by the Home Office Review of R&D and the work of the FSS Transition Board, set up to oversee the wind-down of the FSS, must be made clear.

UK forensic science R&D

178.  Forensic science research is spread across a number of different organisations. As Professor Silverman noted, "it is not true at all that the only research being done is being done by the FSS".[245] Key players include the FSS, private companies and university research groups.

179.  Because of the broad definition of forensic sciences, and the overlap with other scientific fields such as medical and analytical sciences, it is difficult to arrive at a conclusive figure of how much is invested in forensic science R&D in the UK. Professor Silverman stated that:

I don't think it is easy to quantify. If you ask different companies they will give you figures. [...] There is no ring-fenced specific budget from public funds for research in forensic science. What will happen is that there will be projects which have funding from research councils and there will be academics who are funded by HEFCE. Sometimes it is quite difficult to identify exactly what is and is not forensic science, and there is no easy way of quantifying.[246]

180.  Nevertheless, we were able to obtain some useful indicative figures. Professor Silverman told us that:

The Home Office does fund some forensic science work itself. It spends £280,000 on fingerprints, the [Office for Security and Counter Terrorism] spends about £500,000 on conventional explosives and work is being undertaken on nuclear forensics at Aldermaston. We also do work on roadside drugs, prototype drugs and so on. So there is work on drugs, explosives and legal highs. The total figure that I have is £2.338 million.[247]

This is work on forensics but it is on specific areas which the market is unlikely to deal with or where there are national security reasons for it to be done in-house.[248]

181.  Dr Gill Tully, Research and Development Manager at the FSS, told us that:

our spend [on R&D] over the last number of years has been in the region of £3 million to £4 million a year. That is only on the central research and development facility. You have to add to that our IT development of several millions a year and the development that has happened in our operational laboratories.[249]

182.  FSS expenditure on R&D decreased significantly between 2009-10 and 2010-11. The FSS spent £4.01 million on R&D in 2008-09, £4.11 million in 2009-10 and an estimated £3.3 million in 2010-11.[250] Dr Tully explained that "this year it has reduced since the announcement in December".[251]

183.  LGC Forensics, the UK's largest private forensic science provider, spent "between 5% and 10% of [its] forensics revenues on research every year"[252] (exact figures were not publicly provided). Cellmark, one of the next largest forensic providers, spent "about £1 million last year on R&D".[253]

FORENSIC SCIENCE RESEARCH IN UNIVERSITIES

184.  Professor Jim Fraser, University of Strathclyde stated that "it is difficult to convey the lamentable state of research in forensic science compared to other scientific disciplines".[254] Professor Brian Caddy, Emeritus Professor of Forensic Science, University of Strathclyde, stated that "very few universities have any research output in the area of forensic science [...] and this is exacerbated by a great reluctance of the government science research councils to support such research".[255] Research Councils UK (RCUK) confirmed that Research Councils "do not currently support forensic science research as a strategic priority".[256] Professor Fraser, also of Strathclyde University, stated that:

The research councils talk a great deal about the "impact of research". What could be more impactive than criminal justice? What could be more interdisciplinary than forensic science? It is, fundamentally, by definition, an interdisciplinary business. It links policing investigation and criminal justice to science and other areas of activity, yet the word "forensic" is mentioned in the last five annual reports of RCUK on two occasions and there is virtually no funding.[257]

185.  There was little optimism that the closure of the FSS would improve the R&D situation. For example, Sir Alec Jeffreys, Professor of Genetics, University of Leicester, described the move as "potentially disastrous" and stated that:

The FSS serves as the natural national focus for forensic R&D, taking in basic developments arising in academia from the biological, medical, chemical, physical and mathematical/IT sciences and, where appropriate, adapting and refining them for use in forensic analysis. Some of these refinements might occur in the academic sector but this is unpredictable and again, the natural conduit prior to forensic implementation should be through the FSS. Forensic developments are now becoming less common in the academic sector given that the Research Councils and Charities are reluctant to fund forensic science, seeing this instead as the responsibility of the Home Office (reflecting the origins of the FSS).[258]

186.  When he gave oral evidence to this inquiry, Sir Alec described how some academic forensic scientists' research had to be "paid for on the back of casework income that they generate".[259] Professor Peter Gill, Professor of Forensic Genetics, Oslo University, stated that "it has also proven extremely difficult to obtain funding via EU programmes".[260]

187.  Professor Fraser described the importance of political will to support forensic science research:

The issue about the research councils [...] is that they will formulate their objectives on the basis of the political environment around them, and if there is no political will for this then they are unlikely to do so. [...] They fund some areas that overlap with parts of the forensic science [...] So there is funding for things like security research. A great deal of that is around very narrow areas, say, digital evidence, detection of explosives and so on and so forth. With regard to the broader issues, the real need for research, in my view, in forensic science has to balance the science and the procedure on investigative issues linked to criminal justice outcomes. That is not a proposition that any research council will respond to, until the political will is developed that shows that that is something that is desirable.[261]

188.  Professor Fraser explained that political will referred to "the aims of the Government and the aims of the various political parties".[262] He considered that "if forensic science or science and justice was considered to be of political importance, then the research councils would respond to that".[263] The Forensic Institute stated "it is [...] a sad fact that no government has made any plan to replace or expand research in forensic science".[264] Sir Alec suggested:

a clear concordat between the Home Office and RCUK agreeing an indicative national budget for forensic R&D and with a clear understanding of which organisations would be responsible for funding, together with coherent plans for how national research priorities will be set and how funding will be allocated.[265]

189.  When we asked Professor Silverman whether forensic science was seen as a priority within Government, he replied:

The research councils do not, at present, see forensic science as a strategic priority. My understanding is that there are recommendations and suggestions I can make in my report which might encourage them to do so. It is not simply a matter of the research councils announcing that forensic science will be a strategic priority. It is a matter of the community. It is a matter of articulating. It is the users at the sharp end getting together and putting a case to the research councils for forensic science.[266]

Within the Home Office [...] we see forensic science as something where we should spend some research money on specific areas. More widely, I don't think there is specific funding of forensic science research as such.[267]

190.  Professor Silverman did not consider that the closure of the FSS would leave a R&D vacuum in the UK. He explained that:

A lot of R&D is going on in many different places. In the sense that other companies, some of which have given you evidence already, are equally involved in R&D, every scientific company in every area does R&D. This is going slightly outside the scientific remit to answer that question. If you ask the question, "Is there R&D in forensic science other than in the Forensic Science Service?", which is the question I would rather answer, the answer is definitely there is, yes.[268]

191.  There was scepticism that private FSPs would increase their R&D expenditure if the FSS closed, with a distinction made between profitable and non-profitable areas of R&D. For example, the Centre for Forensic Investigation, Teesside University, stated that "with a shrinking market it is not conceivable that the commercial market of forensic providers will fund 100% of the research".[269] Sir Alec stated that:

Closure of the FSS will also make the more complex and interdisciplinary forensic analyses impossible within the UK, since no commercial provider can give this breadth of service, nor would wish to given that such investigations are unprofitable.[270]

The private sector quite rightly contributes to forensic testing in the UK. However, they will only run with tried and trusted techniques that can be adapted to routine high volume and profitable testing. They cannot be expected to contribute to the R&D aspects of forensics and in general do not have the personnel, experience, culture and financial resources to so contribute; horizon scanning and R&D are resource-intensive activities that cannot be supported by companies working in a competitive market.[271]

192.  David Richardson, LGC Forensics, stated that "we see investment in R&D, particularly at the front end but throughout the research chain, as being very important, both to our credibility as a provider and, frankly, to our commercial success in the longer term".[272] However, David Hartshorne, representing Cellmark, stated "our R&D tends to be more at the development stage. To bring scientific techniques through to the criminal justice process requires huge amounts of validation and development. That tends to be where the focus of our research is".[273]

193.  The Minister had different expectations of the private providers, despite having not consulted them prior to the decision. He stated that:

We have seen that private companies are very much investing in research and development and innovation moving forward. Therefore, our expectation is that there will be increased investment in this field as the private sector's share of the market continues to expand and grow as we move through that transition. That was very much our expectation and our consideration when the decision was taken to opt for the wind-down.[274]

194.  Although private FSPs invest in R&D, it is probably unreasonable to expect private companies to increase their investment in some areas of forensic science research, particularly in fundamental research, at a time of market uncertainty. Private companies do, however, have a key role to play in development and application of research and ongoing validation of methods.

195.  Although we are hesitant to call for increased research funding in the current economic climate, the case for increased public funding specifically for forensic science research is compelling. We consider that the Home Office and Research Councils have an interest in the health of the forensic science research base and should develop a new national research budget for forensic science. The views of the forensic science community should be sought when determining the size and scope of the budget and details of its administration.

COORDINATION

196.  The written submissions we received highlighted the importance of coordination of forensic science research efforts. For example, the Centre for Forensic Investigation, Teesside University, stated that:

The whole research arena is currently very uncoordinated and not sufficiently integrated. Universities can support forensic science development but coordination is essential to minimise duplication and ensure the appropriate areas are explored.[275]

197.  Forest Forensic Services considered that:

The move of the FSS to a Government Owned Company and expansion of the forensic marketplace resulted in a transfer of strategic development and coordination of R&D at a national level away from the FSS to the NPIA. A subsequent lack of direction, difficulties in the introduction of new technology that ensued [...] and lack of coordinated investment have had a significant impact on the development of new technology in the forensic field.[276]

198.  Forensic Service Northern Ireland (FSNI) also noted "with concern attempts by the NPIA over the last year to control forensic science R&D centrally", explaining that:

R&D in forensic science is essentially the application of proven science from other areas into the forensic arena and therefore is best driven by the practitioners in response to their customers' needs. Whilst coordination is essential, this must not be centralised control and vetting as currently envisaged. Neither ACPO nor NPIA are well placed to lead forensic R&D strategy but should instead restrict themselves to defining their future needs, rather than the solutions to them.[277]

199.  The FSS itself did not escape criticism. Professor Fraser stated that the FSS:

in their recent guises, as they became an agency, they have been quite a difficult organisation to work with when it comes to research. They are very protective. We have had instances where the research has just fallen by the wayside. The move towards a commercial organisation has restricted the research focus and their willingness to exchange information. These collaborations are really quite difficult to manage but not impossible. If you look at a company like Philips, they have a huge R&D programme. They work extensively with universities. They are very effective at exchanging information for research and development, so it is not impossible. The research culture in the UK at the moment cannot support those collaborations. The trust and the understanding is not there.[278]

And Sir Alec Jeffreys added that:

Another problem is that, if you visit the website or the annual report of any respectable research organisation, the first thing you come across is very detailed information on the research projects and so on. That is crucial; that is the shop window; that is what gets the message out and starts building up collaborations. I have spent a considerable amount of time on the FSS website looking through annual reports and there is virtually nothing at all. That is a real concern. One of my real concerns is the effectiveness with which FSS has interfaced with academia in a two-way process. I have doubts about that. This applies to transparency and peer review. Are they running their science programme in a way that I, as a scientist, have to do? Everything I do has to be peer reviewed, judged by my peers, and, if it is deemed appropriate, I will get the funding. I am not sure, again, that that culture is fully pervading the forensic sciences in this country.[279]

200.  The FSS appears to have worked in a manner that was not conducive to collaboration and coordination of research efforts. The pressure to act as a commercial organisation appears to have been a key factor.

201.  Coordination and collaborations leading to exchange of knowledge are vital to the health of any scientific discipline. We expect that the Home Office Review of R&D will examine this matter in more detail and that it will bring forward detailed recommendations on this.

SKILLS

202.  A key concern was the potential loss of skilled forensic scientists from the profession or from the UK, following the FSS's closure. A loss of skills had already occurred as a result of the FSS's transformation programme, through which the FSS had been aiming to reduce its headcount by 608 by the end of 2010-11[280] and Dr Gill Tully, Head of R&D at the FSS, explained that around 90% of the staff who left as a result of site closures had left the profession completely.[281]

203.  Sir Alec pointed out that:

The FSS R&D staff have the range and depth of experience needed for this horizon scanning and for the multi-disciplinary work needed to move basic research into forensic utility. The loss of this expertise would rule out the UK as a significant contributor to forensic science development, making us dependent on new technologies developed abroad. There are five consequences: (1) delay in implementing the latest technologies, (2) lack of national expertise required to evaluate and implement new methodologies, (3) lack of representation in those organisations that are actually doing the science, (4) lack of a central organisation required to standardise, validate and ensure quality control, and (5) potential loss of [intellectual property] and downstream revenues.[282]

204.  The closure of the FSS may be a deterrent to future aspiring forensic scientists too. Sir Alec Jeffreys pointed out that the closure:

will scare off the new people coming into the field. There are many people going to universities who want to study forensic science. They are suddenly realising that they are in a market where the opportunities for employment are dwindling.[283]

While Professor Jim Fraser did not dispute this, he added a different perspective:

The situation is inflated, anyway. There is a fashion for forensic science at the moment that is, frankly, unhealthy. Most of the educational programmes are driven by the business needs of universities and not by the needs of employers. It was inevitable that this boom would bust. [...] When it is quite plain that the employment opportunities are much more limited, the market will then settle down to something more realistic and people coming into forensic science will go into it with some realism about what it is and what kind of education they need.[284]

205.  When asked whether he had any concerns about the potential loss of forensic scientists, Professor Silverman did not consider that he had "enough information to comment" and stated that:

One of the issues is that in every scientific area there is always fluidity of a market—employees moving around. If we can create a good environment generally, that should help deal with that situation. I don't specifically share those concerns but it would be sad if anything happened which meant that good work was no longer being done.[285]

206.  Andrew Rennison, the FSR, stated that:

we have a considerable number of very experienced scientists at the top level. There is quite a strongly held view out there, and it is a view I share, that there are probably too many of those because there was a recruitment freeze in the FSS for about 10 years. So we have built up a good deal of very experienced scientists. There was a bit of a gap behind them, but there are a lot more very experienced middle-service scientists coming up through the system now.

What is worrying me is where all these very experienced scientists will go. I have been speaking to the other commercial providers about this and there are mixed views. Some say that, to date, they have had no problems with recruiting those most experienced people—because they do need them—as mentors for the abundant number of more junior scientists that are left who do the majority of the desk or bench work. To date they have not had a problem with recruiting those most experienced scientists, but there is a concern, in the current climate, whether those people will stay or go. That is something I will have to monitor.[286]

207.  Although we acknowledge the difficulties in tracking the movements of scientists in the UK and abroad, it is important that the impact of the FSS's closure on its forensic scientists is monitored. The FSS and Government should ensure that the first destination of all forensic scientists that are made redundant or leave the FSS as a result of the proposed wind down are recorded. We request an update on this matter by June 2012.


232   Home Office, Review of research and development in forensic science: background and terms of reference, January 2011  Back

233   As above. Back

234   Ev 60, para 10 [Home Office] Back

235   As at 22 June 2011 Back

236   Ev 60, para 9 Back

237   Ev 65, para 1 Back

238   Government Office for Science, Chief Scientific Advisers and their officials: an introduction, undated, para 21  Back

239   Q 230 Back

240   Q 231 Back

241   HC (2004-05) 96-I, para 7 Back

242   Q 310 Back

243   Q 236 Back

244   Q 311 Back

245   Q 240 Back

246   Q 245 Back

247   Q 246 Back

248   Q 247 Back

249   Q 72 Back

250   HC Deb, 26 April 2011, col 337W Back

251   Q 72 Back

252   Q 90 [David Richardson] Back

253   Q 90 [David Hartshorne] Back

254   Ev 104, para 2 Back

255   Ev w1, para 4 Back

256   Ev w167, para 3 Back

257   Q 94 Back

258   Ev 63, para 1a Back

259   Q 98 Back

260   Ev w20, para 6 Back

261   Q 99 Back

262   Q 107 Back

263   As above. Back

264   Ev w121, para 12 Back

265   Ev 64, para 5 (c) Back

266   Q 248 Back

267   Q 249 Back

268   Q 250 Back

269   Ev w143, para 1.3 Back

270   Ev 63, para 1(d) Back

271   Ev 64, para 4(a) Back

272   Q 90 Back

273   As above. Back

274   Q 310 Back

275   Ev w143, 1.4.1 Back

276   Ev w49, para 1(b)(i) Back

277   Ev w75, para 3.1(c) Back

278   Q 97 Back

279   Q 97 Back

280   Ev 84 [Forensic Science Service] Back

281   Q 45 Back

282   Ev 63, para 1(b) Back

283   Q 100 Back

284   As above. Back

285   Q 252 Back

286   Q 255 Back


 
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