Examine the evidence
Leading US forensics scientists are campaigning to take the showbiz shine off their profession. TV dramas like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) lie behind the so-called CSI effect: 'It's the perception of the near-impossibility or near-infallibility of forensic science,' said Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University (WVU), US.
It damages all sides of criminal investigation, Houck told delegates at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.
Prosecutors have an unrealistic expectation of what laboratory tests can prove. Defendants worry that jurors see science as an 'infallible juggernaut' that is always right.
The effect can harm the families of victims of crime. Patricia McFeeley, a forensic pathologist at the University of New Mexico, also speaking at the meeting, said these 'survivors' are often disappointed to find their local sheriff's office doesn't have the facilities seen on TV and they are unhappy having to wait months for results generated almost instantly on screen.
That's not all. 'Forensic science laboratories are feeling the brunt of the CSI effect,' said Houck. 'Submission rates to laboratories are up at a time when there are backlogs nationally.' There are an estimated 200 000-300 000 DNA samples awaiting analysis, he said, and DNA is thought to constitute only 10 per cent of the total backlog.
But there's no shortage of potential forensic scientists. Houck's university department started with four graduates in 1999, and is now the largest course at WVU with about 400 students in total. Sadly their professional future, particularly financial, is far from certain.
'Where forensic science can grab the wheel a bit more is on policy issues,' said Houck. 'There is a significant lack of funding for forensic science research.' All of which leaves forensic science a far from glamorous option.
Which it never was, says Houck. 'As I tell my students, it's less about wearing leather pants and driving Humbers than it is about wearing a jumpsuit and crawling into somebody's porch looking for body parts.'