by Ashling Gabig, Guest Blogger
When I began my forensic science training and education many years ago, one topic was voiced again and again: Britain’s Forensic Science Services was to be admired, modeled, and respected. The agency’s quality of work was something to strive for as the FSS has led the world in crime scene management and techniques for thirty years. For example, led by Sir Alec Jeffreys, the FSS pioneered DNA profiling. I’ve often dreamed of what it would be like to work for them. Unfortunately, that dream has recently been dashed for many people around the world. In December of 2010, the British government decided to disband the service, opting to contract out to private labs. They claimed that the upkeep for this public sector service was creating a monthly loss of £2 million, and that private labs were more cost effective and time efficient. Three of the initial seven labs that once served England and Wales have already been closed since 2009, with a loss of about 750 forensic personnel.
What started the public versus private sector forensic laboratories debate was a document called the McFarland Review. This 2002 formal review of the FSS was used to analyze the following points: The role that the FSS plays in the criminal justice system, the need to deliver high quality and cost-effective forensic science services, and the future organizational status of the FSS. The Review formally suggested to the British government that the FSS should be turned into a government-run private sector business with the ultimate goal of contracting out to private businesses altogether.
Those of us with any involvement in police services and forensic science understand the gravity of evidentiary support in criminal cases. Many agencies throughout the United States have had to deal with massive backlogs due to lack of funds and personnel. Slowly, many agencies are clearing their way through the evidence, often with a joint effort between public and private forensic labs. Now imagine this same scenario for the FSS. Former FSS scientist Peter Gill said the following about the situation in Britain: “I have moved to Oslo, Norway where I am a professor of forensic genetics. I moved because the position in the UK is so dire. I worked there until three years ago. I left because I could not see a future. As far as I am concerned there is not much to save. It is five years too late. A lot of good scientists have already left because they see absolutely no future in the UK.”
Meanwhile, the other side of the debate says that the closure of the FSS is necessary. The claim is that the FSS does have its own faults that cannot be overlooked. Aside from the cost and upkeep of labs and personnel, the agency does not necessarily offer everything the criminal justice system needs. For example, some say that the FSS is not growing along with the changing times. It is said that they have failed mainly in the areas of digital forensics, which is a rapidly developing field.
Unless the situation changes, the full closure of Britain’s FSS is expected to be complete by March of 2012. Roughly 1,600 forensic personnel will either be unemployed, or their talents lost to another agency.
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