Wildlife forensics & the UN: fighting illegal fishing

The United Nations (UN) is looking to adopt a forensic science approach to assist in managing the problem of illegal fishing. At a UN Food and Agriculture Organization workshop in Rome they discussed what techniques could assist and how: UN turns to forensic science to help combat illegal fishing. “DNA analysis can unveil the species of a suspect white fillet, for example, and chemical tests on fish ear bones reveal absorbed nutrients to pinpoint the region where they were caught, major weapons in combating unscrupulous fishers and traders who game the system to prevent over-fishing and avoid international restrictions aimed as preserving fish stocks, as well as taxes and other limits.”

I always say that there is no end to the types of casework to which a forensic science approach can be applied and this is a perfect example of this in action. Particularly given that one participant at the UN meeting described how “a group convicted of illegally trading abalone confessed that they learned techniques for destroying evidence by watching CSI: Miami. It’s that CSI effect again, only this time it’s gone really bad.

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Scientists and our opinions

This post follows on from a recent post by Grant Jacobs (Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert’s opinion?) and associated comments.

In my opinion, if an expert is presenting information to a court, the court setting doesn’t matter, the manner in which the scientific findings are presented should be the same, regardless of the forensic setting – reproducibility, reliability, impartiality, duty to the court not to those instructing, not having an opinion on the Ultimate Issue (guilt, innocence or other final outcome to be decided by the Trier of Fact and no-one else). The things that distinguish how findings are presented are the rules that relate to individual courts. As a guide, the High Court Code of Conduct for Expert Witnesses is the minimum I would expect of any consultant I used, regardless of the court – these Rules relate to the NZ High Court. (I have previously written about the differences between scientific findings and evidence).

The UK has the most advanced set of procedures that I have encountered to-date – and, having worked with them for some years, I believe they are excellent. Civil procedures are covered by Criminal Procedure Rules (CPR) Part 35 and Part 35 Practice Direction. Criminal procedures are covered by the Criminal Procedure Rules (CrPR) Part 33. These detail how to write reports, how the court should treat Experts, how the court system should work and what the Expert can expect, to name but a few. It seems very regimented but it is designed to create and maintain consistency in standards.

Once the scientist/expert is familiar with the CPR Part 35 and CrPR Part 33, it makes life much, much easier. It allows the courts to believe the findings more easily because before the findings can even make it into court they’ve been through a rigorous checking procedure, as has the Expert.  Having experience giving evidence helps as well of course – the more experience, the better (although that doesn’t meant it’ll get easier with time – it doesn’t).

So, in conclusion, if a scientist can learn to use these tools of procedure for casework and preparation of reports, maintaining control of an interview should seem much easier!  Although, lest we forget, there are no rules for interviews….

Pepper spray and cocaine – a lethal mix?

Recent research in mice has shown that an interaction between cocaine and the active ingredient of CS spray, capsaicin, may result in death.  CS spray (more commonly known as pepper spray) is used by police forces the world over, including New Zealand, as a non-lethal weapon to assist with arrest and incapacitate the person being sprayed.
I’ve encountered the use of CS spray in several cases, all of them alcohol-related but none of them involving fatalities.  Apparently, the presence of capsaicin makes smaller amounts of cocaine more lethal, reports New Scientist (Cocaine and pepper spray – a lethal mix?). It must be remembered however that the research involved mice who were injected with cocaine and capsaicin, whereas in humans the capsaicin is sprayed into the face at a variable time after the cocaine had been taken.

As is often the case with studies involving animals, the results do not necessarily translate directly to humans. However, should there be found to be any definitive correlation between human deaths and the use of CS spray after someone has taken cocaine, the long-term future of the use of CS spray by Police does not look rosy. The New Scientist article also indicates that review was undertaken of 26 deaths that occurred between 1993 and 1995 of people who died shortly after being subdued with pepper spray. 19 had evidence of psychostimulant drugs in the blood and nine had cocaine. Toxicologists are, of course, interested in the results, which may be the result of interactions between the drug and capsaicin in the brain but, as with all good research, further information is needed particularly if there is a push to have the spray banned as a non-lethal, law enforcement weapon. I also assume that someone in the States would want to sue someone else if research proves a link between deaths, cocaine use and CS spray used by a Police officer.

Despite suggestions that, just in case there is an adverse interaction, CS spray not be used on people who have taken cocaine, it begs the question that what Police officer is going to stop and ask a struggling, defensive, aggressive member of the public whether or not they’ve taken cocaine? Practicality says the opportunity for such questions doesn’t always exist – and even if it did, anyone with any sense is not going to admit to a member of the law enforcement agency that they’ve taken an illegal drug, even if the question is supposed to be for their own good.

Let’s wait and see the outcome because someone somewhere has got funding to research this. If the results are against the continued use of CS spray, I guess each country will then need to undertake its own review before making a decision.

Forensic scientists raising money for rape victims – appropriate?

Call me Bah-Humbug or whatever you like, but I was greatly concerned to read that forensic scientists at one of the Forensic Science Service labs in England have recorded Christmas songs and released a CD to raise money for rape victims (see Scientists’ charity CD experiment).

I know that such a cause is extremely worthy and people who are the victims of sexual assault of any kind need and deserve all the support they can get (without being considered to have a mental illness…) – to that end, as a private individual I have given money to similar charities, and others.  However, the duty of all forensic scientists is to the Court and not to those instructing them. The spokesperson for the forensic scientists said that “they regularly worked on sex offences and wanted to do something to help the victims”. To me, that hits right at the heart of the issue of impartiality. I can understand individuals wanting to help the victims of rape but professionally I feel this is inappropriate from forensic scientists.  As forensic scientists, we should be considering the science and keeping one step removed from the emotional aspects of the job.  As soon as a forensic scientist allows sympathy to invade their work then the scientist’s ability to remain impartial is pressed.

In some cases it is extremely difficult to remain impartial but part of doing that is keeping out the emotion and compartmentalising professional work and personal feelings.  We, as forensic scientists, have coping mechanisms for this aspect of the job, which can involve discussing issues with colleagues right through to psychological counselling and assistance.  It’s just part of the job.

Imagine as well the cross-examination of a Crown Expert (because that’s who these scientists are) by Defence Counsel about the sympathy the scientist feels for the victim when what the scientist was supposed to be doing was examining a pair of jeans and reporting the results impartially and without bias.  As forensic scientists we do not have an opinion on the Ultimate Issue – guilt or innocence – that is the role of the Court.  Expressing sympathy for any party involved in a case displays an affinity to one side or the other – in direct contravention of the Codes for Expert Witnesses, of which there are many in England.

I just hope these scientists don’t fall foul of the courts for their charitable actions.  I guess they shouldn’t be criticised for wanting to help people but I just wonder whether this charity CD is the right vehicle for what they want to achieve and for their continued career in forensic science.  Or perhaps they’re in the 800 who will be made redundant in the coming months…?

Peek-a-boo: Monarch butterfly chrysalides

Although not strictly forensic science, these Monarch butterfly caterpillars preparing for life as a butterfly are just too good to ignore. It fascinates me how they manage to produce gold decorations – I can only assume they extract the gold from the plant? Is it even gold?  (Apologies for the red date stamp).


There are three chrysalides in the first photo, relatively easy to see.


There are seven hiding in the middle photo – can you spot them all?!

The last photo is  slightly out of focus but it’s neat to see the before and after stages so close to one another. I just hope some of the dozen or so chrysalides littering the plant and proximally located potato plants actually survive. Last year we had 100% failure rate.

Justification for the existence of vampires

Given that it’s Friday, I think a bit of light scientific relief is in order.

As anyone who has anything to do with teenagers (particularly girls) will know, Vampires are the new Black.  As teenagers are wont to do, they spend much time frightening themselves with the idea that vampires are indeed real and are ready to swoop down and get us all whilst we sleep.

Fortunately for us all, Fox News has devoted time, energy and presumably money in investigating the science behind the myth that is the Vampire.  The opening of the article Are Vampires Real? The Science Behind the Myth demonstrates to us the basis for the development of the myth:  “Decomposing bodies that leaked blood must have frightened gravediggers in the past. Tropical diseases and insects that suck blood, leaving corpses wasted and desiccated, must have seemed scary to other cultures. It’s a short jump from fearful to superstitious, and there are clear biological and anthropological conditions that likely led to these fears.”

Fox News’s intrepid reporters have then investigated the mainstays of vampire life:

  • avoiding sunlight – porphyria or allergy to sunlight or, more commonly, polymorphic light eruption – an immune response to sunlight,
  • immortality  – apparently the activity of the telomerase enzyme in certain of our cell structures can extended the life of those cells – a chemical in our cells that may hold the secret to eternal youth, which may explain how vampires can live forever
  • drinking blood – possibly related to anaemia

There’s no mention of the Holy water or silver bullet issues – bullets of any kind are pretty definitive and many people would shy away from water being thrown at them, Holy or otherwise (although I can think of a few who’d run a mile at the Holy issue).

To debunk the possibility of vampires taking over the world, a paper has been written by physicists C Efthimiou and S Gandhi (meaning someone probably had funding for this) that details a mathematical formula to describe the number of humans left after x months of vampirism spreading through a population of a theoretical size (Skeptical Inquirer v. 31, issue 4 (2007), p. 27).  Apparently, if, as legend has it, the first vampire appeared in 1600 AD, the human population would have been decimated within 2 and a half years.  Their concluding remark is that  “vampires cannot exist, since their existence contradicts the existence of human beings. Incidentally, the logical proof that we just presented is of a type known as reduction ad absurdum, that is, reduction to the absurd” – how many times an a scientist say that during their research career (or maybe I’m just in the wrong sort of science)?

So next time you have to manage a teenage nightmare or you get drawn into an endless teenage discussion about vampires, you’ll be able to settle their minds with ease.

Excellent Book 2: Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers

Following my currently somewhat morbid theme of human death, putrefaction and skeletonisation (see Death’s Acre: Beyond the Legendary Body Farm by Bill Bass), I have just finished reading another jolly night-time book. It’s called Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers by Mary Roach (2004, Penguin, 304 pp).

The author presents an absorbing set of tales about what happens to the human body after it has been gifted to research. Again, it might not be for the squeamish but we’re scientists, so it’s no problem!
Each chapter is devoted to a different area of research, whether it be early anatomists, crash test cadavers (or parts thereof), development of land-mine boots, assessing the Shroud of Turin, whether or not a corpse is dead and the “live” removal of organs from a brain-dead but still-beating-heart person. My personal favourite was the opening chapter about reconstructive surgery and practicing facelifts on severed heads that yesterday had had rhinoplasty – oh, the irony of someone who had always wanted a nose job but didn’t get to have one when they were alive but gets the nip/tuck works after they’ve donated their body to medical research.  Plus think of the money they saved.

I enjoyed this book because it is written by a non-medic – she’s just an interested party who now has some amazing tales to tell at parties (although from experience I would suggest that she will have learnt quickly that one needs to assess one’s audience before launching into the details of a post-mortem).

I thoroughly recommend this book.  It’s the sort of book that can be read a chapter at a time whilst maintaining more traditional fiction books in between times.  The only problems is that at bedtime when you’re trying to distract your brain, slow it down and lull it to sleep, this book wakes it up with its interesting detail and insights into what really happens to medical research cadavers.  Will I be leaving my body to medical research?  I’m still thinking about it…..