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Doomed Forensic Science Service is world-leading lab

Survey finds FSS ranked 5th in the world for citations

The Forensic Science Service, which is due to close by March 2012, is the only UK lab ranked among the world’s top 25 cited forensic research institutions, according to Science Watch magazine.

According to the July/August 2011 issue of the magazine, the FSS ranks number five worldwide with 1,283 citations between 2001 and 2011.

There are no other UK institutions on the list, which is topped by the University Santiago de Compostela in Spain (1,954 citations), followed by Germany’s University of Münster (1,669) and Institute of Legal Medicine/Forensic Science (1,585).

The data, which also lists authors, reveals that Peter Gill, a former principal research scientist at the FSS, has the fourth highest number of citations per paper in the world. There are no other UK-based researchers on the list.

Gill, however, has recently left the UK and now works at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. He also holds a position as a professor of forensic genetics at the University of Oslo.

In an interview, Gill told Research Fortnight Today that he sees no future for forensic research in the UK. “The UK generally doesn’t support forensic science; it has basically collapsed,” says Gill. “It’s become a bit of a backwater and it’s not something I wanted to be part of.”

On a count of citations per paper, however, the University of Oxford is 11th, ahead of the Forensic Science Service in 16th place. This list also features the University of Leicester in 25th place, but no other UK institutions.

Instead, it is neighbouring Western European countries—particularly Germany—that dominate the international scene.

Several German institutions rank high on the lists, including the universities of Munster, Bonn, Hamburg, Freiburg, Magdeburg, Kiel and Mainz as well as the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.

Similarly, the tables feature a significant number of Scandinavian institutions, including the universities of Helsinki, Oslo, Copenhagen, Lindkoping and Karolinska Institute.

Gill says that the Thomson Reuters data is telling for the situation the UK faces as the FSS closes, with no private providers or universities being able to “fill the gap” in research.

“There’s nothing replacing it,” he says. “It’s absolutely disastrous…it could result in miscarriages of justice eventually.”

“The UK is in great danger over these foolish actions and they’re going to fall way behind the rest of the world anyhow—[they] won’t be using the most up-to-date methods,” he adds.

The government announced in December 2010 that it would be closing the FSS and that its work would be taken over by commercial providers. A departmental spokeswoman said in a statement that alternative arrangements were being put in place but that the department had to take “rapid action” and close the FSS since it was losing £2 million per month.

“Our plans are proceeding apace. They will ensure that the criminal justice system continues to function effectively and protect the taxpayer from the huge losses incurred by the FSS.

“The recent review by Professor Bernard Silverman [Home Office chief scientist] found a wide range of research ongoing in many public and private sector institutions and made a number of recommendations which will, going forward, protect and enhance the research and development environment in forensic science,” she added.

Gill describes Silverman’s attitude as “shocking”. The report is wrong in assuming that commercial providers will fill the gap, he says, arguing that such institutions do not have enough funding to take on the research load.

In addition, he says, the report is flawed in assuming that research councils will start funding forensic science since they “don’t see it as part of their remit”.