Double jeopardy for forensics

It is, of course, good news that Gary Dobson and David Norris have been convicted for the murder of Stephen Lawrence - but at the risk of raining on the government's parade, it seems a good time to raise the matter of the imminent closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS).

In March, UK forensic science will become a purely commercial affair. One of the biggest casualties is likely to be the development of forensic techniques for securing evidence - such as those pivotal to this month's success.

Dobson and Norris could only be retried for the murder because double jeopardy was removed, as recommended in the 1999 Macpherson report on the original investigation. The report suggested that there ought to be an opportunity to bring suspects back to court if there was "fresh and viable evidence". Creating that evidence in the Lawrence case required basic research and development; the forensic science techniques that brought Dobson and Norris to justice did not exist in 1996.

Once the FSS is closed, any further developments in forensic science will probably be the property of private companies that compete for police contracts. There is no guarantee that innovations will be available to whoever wins a bid.

The FSS is to be broken up and sold off because it is losing £2m a month. Alarmed by what looked like a rushed deadline for its closure, MPs of the House of Commons science and technology select committee launched an inquiry into the rationale behind the decision.

They found that the financial situation of the FSS arose largely because of police "insourcing" of forensic work, often to labs that were unaccredited. Commercial pressures had become a drain on the public good of the FSS and the service was in danger of insolvency. Not only is justice blind, she also now operates on a budget.

The MPs' biggest concern was raised when they asked James Brokenshire, parliamentary undersecretary of state for crime and security, whether he had made any assessment of the likely impact of the FSS's closure on forensic science research and development in the UK. The answer was a flat no.

This is staggeringly short-sighted. A crucial element of the prosecution's evidence in the Lawrence case was the discovery of a microscopic speck of Lawrence's blood on Dobson's bomber jacket. Only through advances in DNA fingerprinting and analysis achieved since the original trial was the dead teenager's DNA identifiable from such a small sample.

Crime time

Making further progress in all fields of forensic research will be important, but the state of forensics research in UK universities is "lamentable", according to expert testimony gathered by the MPs. Another expert described the closure of the FSS, which acts as a co-ordinating body for assessing the value of all breakthroughs, as "potentially disastrous".

The work for the Lawrence case was carried out by scientists at LGC, a private analysis firm. (At the time of the original Lawrence trial, LGC was the Laboratory of the Government Chemist; had it remained a public body, we could all have been glowing with pride over its success.) According to the MPs' report, LGC spends between 5 and 10 per cent of its budget on research. When its main competitor is gone in a couple of months, it will probably make commercial sense for that percentage to drop.

Gradually, UK forensics research will stumble and fall, and conviction rates are likely to follow. Despite the recent convictions, it's a good time to
be a criminal.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

By Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

This article first appeared in The battle for Britain