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“Mission Decipher”: Public Engagement in the Forensic Sciences

Sian ESmith21 July 2016

Last month I was lucky enough to work with a school from Birmingham, the Selly Oak Trust School on behalf of Forensic Outreach. We spent an hour and a half together learning a bit about the history of cryptography and then on to solving mysteries! They made their own enigma machines, translated coded World War II messages, and reconstructed shredded documents. We definitely had some budding cryptanalysts that day – they solved the mysteries with flying colours!

But why is science outreach and public engagement so important?

In the early 19th Century, public lectures lead to the popularisation of science. Nowadays, scientific fields, like forensic science and forensic anthropology, are popular storylines for TV shows. This is great because it opens people’s minds to the opportunities and fascinating technologies that we use. But perhaps…they are slightly exaggerated sometimes. Sadly, our days aren’t filled with witty one liners, steely stares, and dramatically removing our sunglasses (as fun as that would be).

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These shows do a great job at demonstrating the real-world applications of the forensic sciences: using bones to identify who someone was and how they died, or using DNA to solve a sexual assault case for example. Science needs to be more integrated into our culture and media is a great way to do it.

Public engagement, or outreach, are great for both the audience and the researchers. Research Councils UK emphasise that engaging with a non-specialist audience can greatly improve your communication skills; this is definitely something that I have experienced as a facilitator. I feel more comfortable discussing my research at events and in finding ways to get the public engaged with the topic. It is a chance for kids and adults to get hands on experience with the tools and knowledge we use in our jobs. Along the way we also hope to inspire kids and young adults to consider the different career opportunities they can have.

For me, engaging with the public provides a guide for making my work more impactful. 3D imaging and forensic science both gain a lot of media attention, but more importantly the public have a significant stake in their success. Being able to present one of my research projects to a lay audience is a similar skill to presenting evidence for a jury.

The stake the public have in science is also our ability to understand and debate on issues impactful to our lives. For example, are you pro- or anti-stem cell research? Are you ready for self-driving cars? Scientific development relied equally on the researchers and the public. Without public interest there is no development, or funding, or support. Elizabeth Marincola described science without engagement as “like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to hear it; it may happen but no one will care.

Who are Forensic Outreach?

Forensic Outreach

I have been working with an organisation called Forensic Outreach recently. The UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences has enjoyed a long standing working relationship with them. They provide public engagement programmes, events (e.g. late evenings) and interactive apps to promote public interest in the work of major museums and city attractions. They work with national museums, charities, and local schools – you can check out some of their previous work here. The facilitators are a mix of PhD students, researchers, and practitioners; it’s a really fun way for us to bring our research and the subjects that we love to really wide audiences. They also run an online magazine with articles on current issues and a history of forensic science cases.

Keep up to date Forensic Outreach on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

 

Follow us on Twitter:  @UCLForensicSciences@sianysmith

“Out of Africa – A Forensic Journey” – Dr David Klatzow Seminar

MichaelaRegan27 May 2016

This week we were fortunate to have Dr David Klatzow visiting us to give us an overview of the history of forensic science in South Africa by looking at the apartheid era up until the Oscar Pistorius trial.

In 1984, Dr Klatzow established the first private forensic laboratory in South Africa and during a period of 28 years he has investigated over 2000 cases ranging from criminal matters to civil disputes. He has also worked with the Legal Resources Centre (http://www.lrc.org.za/).

Dr David Klatzow

Dr David Klatzow

During the seminar, Dr Klatzow demonstrated the issues of having forensic science departments closely linked to police or government agencies; as it creates a dangerous situation because experience has shown that these departments can be left open to mistakes and even corruption.

He further emphasised that the first step to changing this process is at the crime scene management stage. The Oscar Pistorius case is a prime example where rigorous crime scene analysis was not followed. The bathroom door was removed from the scene for ballistics analysis and even later brought into the courtroom, when such analysis could have been carried out at the scene. By doing this they risked contaminating the scene as well as introducing unnecessary bias to the case

Dr Klatzow’s talk represents current debates that are prominent in the field of forensic science. Ensuring the robustness of forensic evidence at all stages, from the crime scene to the presentation in court, is essential to ensuring accurate and unbiased conclusions. Encouraging the use of experimental studies to validate our assessments as forensic scientists, rather than just relying on craft knowledge, is an obvious trend in the field and something that we at the CFS strive to incorporate into our teaching and research.

We are very grateful to Dr Klatzow for taking the time to talk to us about these issues and share his experiences.

CFS Seminar Series – Brian Rankin

NadineSmit23 January 2014

CFS Seminar lead by Brian Rankin (Head of the Centre for Forensic Investigation, Teesside University)
January 22, 2014

In addition to most of the other seminars that focus on specific forensic studies, this seminar was aimed at highlighting the market issues around forensic science. If you were not aware of the importance of this as a forensic science student or researcher, you would have been afterwards. Brian Rankin pointed out the main challenges, which were then discussed among the group. This forced you to think about the implications of these issues for the future of forensic science and yourself herein. I found it very enlightening to discuss these issues with someone that has experience in both the academic and policing environment, and who is very passionate and enthusiastic about his, and our, field.

For example, I think many forensic science students do not realise the importance of effective case management to save time and costs in the CJS, which is said to be improved by using streamlined forensic reporting. What also I found noteworthy and worrying are the different requirements for the laboratories in the police forces and the independent forensic companies to be accredited. To me, this also implies that the shutdown of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) resulted in many problems regarding quality assurance and maintaining the code of practice. Luckily, with the help of the Forensic Science Regulator, such issues are currently being addressed. Also, with the shutdown of the FSS, universities in the UK now bear the responsibility of research and development, which I believe should be done with close communication and participation of the government, police and commercial companies to guide forensic research to address current issues.

Examples were given, such as the investigative process of the murder on Jill Dando and the arrest of Shirly McKie which put some of the current issues into perspective. These are just two of many more examples that show the significant impact of the improper handling of forensic evidence. This seminar once again highlighted the importance of multidisciplinary and collaborative research in the forensic domain which was both eye-opening and encouraging. Lastly, even though job opportunities in this field are limited, it was highlighted that forensic science students are equipped with many skills that can be applied in a lot of other problem-solving environments.