Forensic Science – A Case Study

An increasingly popular course amonst students, but one that leaves employers wanting more of graduates. Dr Dick Evans considers the situation, and highlights a number of suggestions for improvement.

There has been a great deal of media cover age recently on the crisis in science particularly at Higher Education (HE) level following a number of high profile closures of chemistry and physics departments. This in spite of numerous warnings including those published in ‘t’magazine over many years.

I have argued that long-term solutions are necessary to rebuild a strong mathematical and scientific base in this country at all stages of education and training. The problems with the current situation, as so often in the past, prompts short term, knee jerk reactions. What is urgently needed is a national strategy that transcends this ‘city’ mentality and once and for all addresses the long term causes not just for science but other key subjects like mathematics, engineering and modern languages. Inevitably universities are now taking, often very reluctantly, hard decisions to deal with the situation created by declining student numbers, high resource costs and long established problems with the deployment of specialist staff. Other universities develop alternatives to the ‘traditional’ science disciplines in order to attract students. These developments have both positive and negative consequences as will be shown later. The problems are deep seated and many of the associated elements have been well rehearsed including the seminal book ‘ British Science and Politics Since 1945’ by Tom Wilkie (1). Wilkie brilliantly maps out the issues that have brought about the decline of science in this country as a political priority. His analysis demonstrates how crucial government support is particularly needed in the area of policy and subsequent funding both for pure and applied research.

The way Higher Education has responded to low student recruitment in science is illustrated in a recent report. This excellent piece of work from the Sector Skills Council (SSC) for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (SEMTA) entitled Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education (2) has highlighted a number of fundamental issues associated with HE science. The report was prepared by SEMTA and funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) Physical Sciences. The project team comprised members of these organisations as well as other key stakeholders and the project steering group was chaired by Richard Smith (Director of Science and Technology-SEMTA).

The research was undertaken because of employers’ concern about the increasing number of Forensic Science degree courses in relation to the number of jobs available in the Forensic sector. There was also concern about the quality of science skills these courses deliver compared to labour market requirements. The research therefore raises amongst other factors a whole series of issues about supply and demand and labour market intelligence.

This research is both timely and relevant in making a valuable contribution to the wider debates associated with the nature of science at HE level and which science related programmes might attract students. In previous articles I have indicated the consequences of the significant decline in the number of students studying separate sciences particularly to relationship in creating skill shortages across a wide range of scientific and technological industries. This fact is now undermining the country’s international competitiveness in high technology sectors. Universities have quite rightly sought to develop programmes that will attract students into science in order to more fully exploit their existing underused physical and human recourses. Recently Newcastle and Keele Universities have announced closures of their physics departments with the latter only maintaining Astrophysics.

Some background.

Forensic Science BSc programmes in Britain have been developed since 1990. The report indicates that over 50 degree programmes, including some at Masters level, and over 350 possible course combinations exist with a Forensic element to them. The content of degrees with the title ‘Forensic Science’ varies a great deal with similar programmes possessing very different titles reflecting the fact that there is no current standardisation.

Key Findings/Conclusions

The research report produced a fascinating array of findings and identified a number of points that merit further investigation. The research methodology sought the views of forensic science and science employers, university staff involved with the programmes and students. The findings have both a specific as well as a much wider set of implications for science programmes currently offered by universities. A summary of the findings is given below.

Forensic Science Employers.

  • 9 out of 17 employers identified skills gaps in such technical areas as court-room and practical skills and generic skills such as communication and team working.
  • Employers stressed the importance of problem solving/analytical and communication skills in their work.
  • Forensic Science organisations and police departments want graduates with a range of science degrees, either Chemistry related, Biology, Physics or MSc’s and BSc’s in Forensic Science. Chemistry is seen as the most important subject by employers.
  • Employers wanted to see degrees that produce students with better knowledge of Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, Laboratory Skills and Presentation Skills
  • 68 % of the employers had been involved in developing the programmes.
  • All of the employers felt that there is a lack of clarity and consistency across the BSc programmes and as a result there was a need to develop an accreditation scheme or national standard which more closely matched the National Occupational Standards.

Science Employers

Interesting to note the views of other science employers who were predominantly from the Pharmaceutical, Chemical and Biotechnology sectors.

  • Many had little or no experience of forensic science and none had employed any graduates from the discipline.
  • Chemistry was seen as the most important subject and as a result graduates who had studied Analytical Chemistry, Chemical Engineering or Chemistry were recruited
  • Generic skills were seen as the most valuable.
  • 60% of the employers had experienced skills shortages and the areas most difficult to recruit included Food Scientists, Biochemists, Laboratory Assistants and Analytical Chemists.
  • The majority of employers said that they would employ Forensic Science graduates but qualified this by wishing to see more depth in scientific skills and problem solving.

Students.

  • 87 % of the students’ first choice was Forensic Science.
  • If the programme had not been available then 32 % of the students would not have gone to university.
  • Forensic Science component was seen as the most popular by the students followed by practical and crime scene work whilst the least popular were chemistry, biology and legal work.
  • 65 % of the students hoped to work in areas of work closely associated with Forensic Science with 13 % not knowing what they would do after graduating.

University Staff.

  • Forensic Science has been successful in attracting students who would not have applied to university otherwise and the courses recruit a high proportion of females typically around 2 to 1. (Interesting to note the equivalent figure for the physical sciences is 0.6 to 1.0).
  • The programme has a much lower none completion rate, namely 8.1 % compared with the average of 16 % for all degree programmes
  • High level of consultation with employers.
  • Applicants are found to be weak on Mathematics and Practical skills.
  • 83 % of the institutions thought there wasnan over supply of graduates namely a mismatch between supply and demand.

As one can see the introduction of Forensic Science courses has had a number of very positives outcomes but at the same time precipitated a number of implications that have wider ramifications for science and science related programmes at HE level. The students avoid applying for “traditional’ science disciplines and those that enrol on the forensic science programmes invariably possess weakness in mathematics and the physical sciences especially chemistry which is seen be the employers as the most important subject. In addition the students disliked the mathematics and chemistiy elements of the programme the most.

Another recurring issue was that around supply and demand the forensic industry sector estimates that approximately 430 graduates will be recruited over the next two years while SEMTA estimates that 1500 will graduate over that period. Clearly one possibility is that other employers once they become aware of this pool of graduates will see value in employing them within their companies.

The continuing lack of a QAA benchmark for the subject causes concern as well as the wide range of degree programmes. Employers are unclear about this diversity and see it as a weakness particularly when assessing the science content within the programme. They are very positive about the Masters programmes in Forensic Science. However the report highlights that the majority of employers still doubt whether these programmes are capable of satisfying the scientific needs of industry. In spite of these major concerns the programmes have increased enrolments in a science related subject and could indicate a wish by many students to pursue other science-based degrees. If this possibility could be realised then with careful market research and close collaboration with prospective employers new innovative programmes could be developed to increase participation and slow down the closure of science department in universities. In addition other existing science programmes could learn from the success of these Forensic Science courses by relating the science to real life situations that interest young people.

The key factors to capitalise on this piece of research is that universities must:

  • Develop an effective system of labour market intelligence which addresses the supply and demand equation and work very closely with employers both within the forensic science field and other science based industries.
  • Be confident that the students possess the necessary capability in mathematics, physical sciences and the wider key skills particularly problem solving, team working and communications.
  • In conjunction with the quality agencies develop benchmarks for these new programmes linking them with the appropriate occupational standards.
  • In conjunction with the funding council develop a more adequate unit of resource for science and science related provision in order to attract more people into the study of these subjects.

Another pleasing feature of this research is that it makes a number of important recommendations that address many of the issues, both positive and negative, that it identified. This report is a valuable contribution to the debates that must continue about science programmes at HE level. It is essential to identify the issues and raise the profile of science in order to bring about a more secure future for the subject.

Hopefully this research will prompt other projects that focus on similar subjects that are struggling at HE level e.g. modern languages, mathematics and engineering.

Reference:

(1) “British Science and Politics Since 1945”. Tom Wilkie. Blackwell 1991. ISBN 0-631-16851-6 9 pbk.).

(2) “Forensic Science: Implications for Higher Education”. 2004. SEMTA. ISBN No.1 84019 189 9.

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