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.

Part 3: CSI effect/forensic science jobs

I have previously talked about how to get a job in forensic science and how CSI has skewed the image the general public has of forensic scientists (see job in forensic science, retrain, real CSI effect, speed and effect of science, job in forensic science plus others – it’s something about which I have strong feelings…). This is a good and brief article dealing with Bob Shaler’s opinion on forensic science, CSI and what it means to get a job in forensic science: Is Forensic Science on TV Accurate?. Bob Shaler was the man charged with handling the DNA identification of the World Trade Centre bombings so he knows his stuff. Disappointingly for many, when he says “I was a crime lab guy, but I was never the person portrayed on TV.” “That person doesn’t really exist.” – it’s sad but true.

CSI effect: the speed and appliance of science

Following on from comments and items regarding the CSI effect, there are two other issues 1. speed/turnaround times; 2.  case limitations.

1.  Not only do people expect science to provide full and complete answers, they expect it do be done quickly and on every occasion. Unfortunately, it’s not like CSI where a sample can be placed into a machine and an answer pops out after half an hour.  Some analyses take what appear to be a long time.  Processing of forensic pollen samples springs to mind – it’s a relatively long process, but consideration has to be given not just to the results but the interpretation.  Thinking time has to be built into the reporting system.  What seems like an unsolvable question today might easily be answered in two days’ time, probably at 2 in the morning when one is half asleep….

2.  Science is evolving at a rapid pace and, in the long run, will probably achieve anything people want – it’s the age-old story that if the human mind can imagine it, it will probably eventuate, even if it’s in two hundred years’ time.  However, in legal casework it is important to remember that the limitations of each case are the main restricting factors affecting the application of science, not the science itself.  Just because DNA didn’t work in a particular case doesn’t mean it won’t work next time, it just means that for this particular case insufficient DNA was present for a profile to be obtained.

Although these comments don’t apply to everyone, a sufficiently large proportion of people are influenced by these factors that it has a knock-on effect on the amount of work we, as a company, receive.


How to get a job in forensic science? Retrain

I have previously written about getting a career in forensic science (How to get a job in forensic science) because I am always being asked this very question.  I gave a lecture only last Thursday about forensic science in the UK and what a great place it is to get work experience, which is very true.  It’s hard not to be negative about a career in forensic science because there have been so many redundancies (800 in England & Wales) and Police budgets are being cut in both NZ and the UK.  Once again I say that this is setting someone (or more) up for a miscarriage of justice.

Now I see an article that demonstrates my worst fears: The grisly truth about CSI degrees. The article shows that the UK Forensic Science Service currently has 1,300 scientists (but it doesn’t say whether this includes the 800 to be made redundant). It goes on to say that the UK’s largest private provider, LGC Forensics, employs 500 people. In 2008 alone, 1,667 students embarked on the 285 forensic science degree courses (compared with just 2 courses in 1990).  This massive increase in numbers is, as I have commented previously, as a result of the CSI Effect.  I like the final sentence in the article: “in order to ensure there are enough jobs to go round, more than half of them will have to retrain as serial killers.” And what better people to know how to cover their tracks than forensic scientists?!