TV crime rekindles interest in science

May 18, 2007

While some academics see the boom in forensics courses as a positive development, detractors cite issues of course quality. Olga Wojtas reports.

The dramatic growth in forensic science courses in the past decade has seen them branded "Mickey Mouse" degrees, and universities offering them have been accused of a cynical attempt to get bums on seats at a time when science applications are plummeting.

This seems a reasonable criticism when courses listed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service include forensic science and music, forensic science and film studies, forensic science and tourism, and forensic science and linguistics.

Academics in the field concede that the massive rise in student demand has been boosted by television dramas such as CSI and Silent Witness and Patricia Cornwell novels.

Jim Fraser, director of Strathclyde University's Centre for Forensic Science, is sceptical of the value of many courses. Strathclyde has run forensic courses for more than 40 years and launched the UK's first undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Professor Fraser, a forensic scientist with 30 years' experience, said Strathclyde's staff are involved in casework that directly underpins their teaching: high-profile cases such as the Birmingham Six and the Oklahoma bombing.

His own work covers the cases of Damilola Taylor, that of serial child killer Robert Black, and that of Michael Stone, who was convicted of murdering Lin and Megan Russell.

"Most courses have been developed in the past decade or more recently, and some haven't produced a graduate yet. They are a long way from developing a course that has pedigree," he said.

"Everybody here is involved in casework. While this is subjective, I would say 95 per cent of staff who teach forensic science and related subjects in the UK have never been to court, written a witness statement or been to a crime scene, and I would question how you can teach something you've no experience of."

Dick Winterton, chief executive of skills council Skills for Justice, warns of an "imperfect market", with employer demand nowhere near student demand.

The major employer, the Forensic Science Service, a Home Office agency, does not take on any forensic science graduates, only those with degrees in chemistry and biology.

Skills for Justice is rolling out a quality standard, inviting institutions to put forward programmes for endorsement, which will include a check on expertise and equipment.

Mr Winterton said: "We're getting clarity on behalf of employers so they know what they're getting, I'd lay down a challenge to universities to make it equally clear to students what employers are looking for. If they still want to do a sexy first degree in forensic science and music, that's fine, but let it be an informed decision."

Elspeth Farrar, director of the careers advisory service at Imperial College London and a board member of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, agreed that job opportunities in the field are limited.

"But anything that encourages students to stay interested in science is probably a good thing, and they will end up with a degree that is very, very marketable," she said.

Many of the early courses grew out of analytical chemistry, and there were fears they would divert students from the traditional sciences. But Tina Overton, director of the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre at Hull University, said that research into the discipline's development had produced startling findings.

"A high proportion of students were female and many said that they would not have considered taking a science degree in physics or chemistry or biology," she said. "Some went so far as to say they would not have gone into higher education at all had this degree not been available. This has been a success in attracting a new type of student to science."

Steve Haswell, professor of analytical chemistry, agreed. The UK needs more scientists, but not necessarily at PhD level, and universities are able to teach fundamental areas of science within the forensic setting.

Forensic science has been dismissed as less scientifically rigorous than other disciplines, but Dr Overton suggested there was an element of snobbery in this, given it is predominantly the preserve of new universities.

"This is a new academic discipline. Everyone understands what should be in a chemistry degree. Forensic science is different. Some courses are very rigorous and very scientific, others have a broader base. The graduates are not all going to get jobs in the forensic sector, but there is no evidence to suggest that departments are selling courses heavily on that possibility."

Lee Chatfield, head of the department of forensic and investigative science at the University of Central Lancashire, said: "You have to be honest from the beginning. We make it clear in our brochure and on our website how difficult it is to get into that area."

Uclan launched a forensic science degree in 2000, attracting 104 students, only six of whom failed to complete. Six months after graduating, 98 per cent of forensic science graduates are in work or further study, but only 13 per cent are in forensic posts.

"But," he said, "provided the students get a good course, a good experience and a job at the end of it, I'm happy. You're turning them on to science by looking at the application of techniques. It gives us scenarios and stories that we can hang the science on, and students' recall of scientific principles is far greater. What the human brain remembers best is stories rather than 'what's the fifth element in the periodic table?'" Of the 12 per cent of graduates going on to further study, many take one of Uclan's three masters in forensic science, which will expand to five next year.

"That greatly enhances their prospects of getting a job in a forensic lab."

Dr Chatfield added that half of Uclan's staff have professional forensic experience, and this helps to win credibility with forensic employers.

"People have talked about a bubble bursting since 2000, and it hasn't happened. I view this very much as a sustainable academic area, and I think the benefits from attracting students to science courses are tangible," he said.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

CRIMINAL INVOLVEMENT

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service lists 472 courses with the word "forensic" in the title. More specifically, there are 259 "forensic science" courses. In 2008, the numbers will rise to 486 and 262 respectively.

A 2005 report by the Science, Engineering, Manufacturing, Technologies Alliance and the Higher Education Academy Physical Science Subject Centre estimated that about 3,000 undergraduates were studying forensic science.

There were 4.3 applicants for every BSc forensic science place and six for every masters place. Forensic science was the first choice of 87 per cent of applicants.

The report found that forensic science courses had a lower non-completion rate compared to the national average - 8.1 per cent as opposed to 16 per cent. The masters non-completion rate was just 0.7 per cent.

Women outnumbered men by two to one. Forty-five per cent of students hoped to work as scene-of-crime or fingerprint officers.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SCENES

Television crime dramas may make gripping viewing, but they do not always accurately reflect the life of a forensic investigator, according to policewoman-turned-academic Julie Mennell (pictured).

Professor Mennell's decision to join the police after graduating from Leeds University in physics and maths gave her life experiences that have helped underpin her subsequent career in forensic science.

As dean of Northumbria University's School of Applied Sciences, she was instrumental in introducing crime-scene science into the undergraduate curriculum.

She is enthusiastic about the role of television in highlighting what forensic science can do and in boosting its popularity at university.

However, TV fiction can give a misleading impression.

"Everything is speeded up, results happen very quickly, and there tends to be one person involved rather than 20," she said. "But if it's engaging and motivating young people in an application of science that has to be good."

Professor Mennell pointed out that storylines of murder and mutilation do not reflect reality.

"Often the media focus on the very gruesome, which is misleading regarding the role of crime scene investigators in the police."

Professor Mennell attended crime scenes by being the first officer there rather than an investigator, and the overwhelming majority of cases she dealt with were burglaries, car crime and minor offences.

"There are some aspects of the role of a police officer that are difficult to deal with, such as vehicle accidents where people have been injured, but these are few and far between," she explained.

Professor Mennell chairs the new UK Forensic Science Education Group, which brings together academics, police officers and other interested parties, to discuss current and future skills needed in forensic science, and includes how the police deal with what science can reveal. She said: "There is no point in being able to do something at the scene unless you can use the information effectively, such as ensuring data on fingerprints gets quickly to officers on the beat."

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