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April 01, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 7)

Deficiencies in Forensic Science Training Must Be Met Head-On

Scientists, Lawyers, and Judges Need Education to Overcome the &ldquo;<i>CSI</i> Effect&rdquo;

  • Training

    The committee was most concerned with forensic scientists’ knowledge base. It concluded that staffing and equipment to reduce backlogs was not enough; forensic scientists need more fundamental research to validate their techniques and more training to conduct them proficiently.

    I believe that it’s all about training. As the report says, forensic scientists need to understand the principles, practices, and context of the scientific methodology they use, as well as the distinctive features of their specialty. 

    Training should move away from reliance on the apprentice-like transmittal of practices—an incestuous process—to college and university education and continuing professional development and training to keep abreast of advances in new techniques and an understanding of the old, traditional techniques. 

    Training will also be needed to comply with the mandatory accreditation of laboratories and certification of all practitioners. In order to overcome the CSI effect, there is also a need to educate the users of forensic science, especially lawyers and judges. The juries need an explanation of reality as well.

    The need for training has not gone unnoticed. Training has been considered one of the areas most lacking in the forensic science and criminal justice communities for some time now. Nevertheless, crime labs with budget shortfalls always seem to cut travel and training first.  Therefore, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) created the Forensic Science Training Development and Delivery Program. 

    The College of Microscopy, for example, participates in a cooperative agreement with the NIJ to train 200 trace evidence examiners in state-of-the-art microanalytical techniques. This training is free to state and local crime laboratory examiners. Within a couple of weeks of the program’s announcement, three-quarters of the slots were filled, a common response experienced by other training programs sponsored by the NIJ.

    In the end, forensic science must be strengthened from within—from the bottom up. Forensic science cannot be strengthened by the politicians and lawyers—from the top down. The ultimate strength of the forensic sciences will come from more training to ensure the legitimacy and integrity of this field in the future.