Gill Arbuthnott begins the session by talking first of Val McDermid’s long career in crime fiction. She also jokingly suggests that any Whiskey magnates should contact her. There is already a Val McDermid bar, football stand, and mortuary, a Val McDermid malt would complete the set nicely. Niamh Nic Daeid is Professor of Forensic Science at Dundee University and a colleague of Professor Sue Black who shared a stage with McDermid at the book festival in 2012. McDermid has spent many years picking the brains of both professors in the search for forensic details and ideas for her books.
Nic Daeid grew up surrounded by forensic science, both her parents were fire investigators and often discussed their work at home. Initially she resisted working in forensics herself, she studied chemistry and maths at university, then she found herself working in forensics education and growing frustrated with the way fire scene investigation was taught.
She explains that forensic science has a much longer history that we might assume. There was a coroner’s guide written in 12th century China, which contains a case study of a man who had been murdered. The investigator examined the wounds and concluded that a sickle had been used to kill him, so he asked everyone in the village who owned one to line up and waited until flies began to gather on the blade of the perpetrator.
McDermid then brings up Frances Glessner Lee, a millionaire heiress who founded the first legal medicine forensics school at Harvard in the 1930s and decided that detectives needed to be trained in how to read a crime scene. She made extremely detailed dioramas of crimes, which were used to teach crime scene investigation and still exist today. Nic Daeid interjects that she has seen some of them and was impressed by the accuracy of the painted burn pattern in one depicting a fire.
Discussion moves onto both the legal system and the responsibility of scientists and writers to communicate the science clearly. McDermid always tries to be as accurate as possible, though a certain amount of gloss over the details is required to keep the reader engaged. She worries that too many in publishing and production feel no responsibility to be accurate. Many of them had very little science education at school and so fail to understand the problems caused by misrepresenting the realities of the field. She recommends The Life Scientific, a radio program hosted by Jim Al-Khalili, as an example of excellent science communication.
Nic Daeid explains that the inaccurate and exaggerated forensic science of TV crime dramas often leads to the expectations of the public being too high. When evidence if presented to the jury in a trial they are too often left confused or underwhelmed because they do not appreciate the limitations and intricacies of the science. In the feedback for a short course she had been involved in a man had explained that he had recently served on the jury of a murder trial. There was a sense of the jury not fully understanding the science and they returned a verdict of ‘not proven’. Now that he had learnt a little more about the science behind the evidence presented he felt he might not have returned the same verdict if asked to decide again. Failure to communicate science used in the courts has real consequences for everyone involved.
This problem is exacerbated by recent changes in England and Wales. The UK used to lead the world in forensic science and research. Scotland and Northern Ireland still have centralised labs where all the evidence that needs to be tested is sent. However in England and Wales the system has been privatised and there are now 13 independent companies, all of which specialise in a different area and all of which have to compete for work. This means that evidence is often split up and sent to different labs. Instead of the scientists deciding what is worth testing, the police make those decisions, often on a financial basis, and the delicate work of interpreting the results is disrupted by the fact that the scientists do not have access to all the evidence and don’t talk to each other. One of the private companies in England used to lead the world in fibre analysis. They recently went out of business. an extremely valuable resource has been lost and all fibre evidence now comes north to Scotland.
The other consequence of this changed system is that the funding for much needed research is gone. Every technique needs to be thoroughly tested and retested if it is to be fairly and responsibly used. If you break a window, do traces of the glass transfer onto your clothes? How long does it stay there? Is there a difference in transfer between different types of glass? These questions, and many, many more, require answers but often the research appears mundane and the limited funding goes to more ‘exciting’ projects.
The glamorous façade painted over forensics by programs like CSI has the added consequence of excessive demand for university courses in forensic science. Nic Daeid points out that in 2003-2004 there were over 400 undergraduate course in forensic science in the UK but, as was discovered during a government review, they are largely a waste of time and money. Students leave these courses with only a superficial understanding, which is not really of any use. Forensic science is not technically it’s own science; it’s the application of relevant techniques from other sciences. Nic Daeid says that students are far better taking a degree in natural sciences or anatomy (depending on which area of forensic science they’re most interested in) and then specialising in forensics at a postgraduate level.
I managed to speak to Nic Daeid outside the signing tent afterwards. I explained that I’d studied Archaeology and then Palaeopathology at Durham and found that everyone lecturing on the scientific techniques (archaeology is similar to forensics in that much of it is applied science) had spent a great deal of time emphasising the importance of accuracy and careful interpretation. She agreed that this was an important attitude to have and that it needed to be emphasised by more universities. I then asked what she thought of Bones, a program I can no longer watch thanks to the exaggerated (or just plain wrong) science. Her response was to laugh and say, “It’s a good thing you didn’t ask my boss that.”