Leading experts try to save UK forensics lab

LONDON—More than 30 leading international scientists Tuesday warned the British government that planned closure of its high-profile forensics science center would hurt Britain’s crime-fighting capacity.

The scientists also said Britain could lose its status as a world leader in groundbreaking DNA research if the government goes ahead with plans to close the money-losing Forensic Science Service by 2012.

The planned closure was announced several weeks ago as part of a series of government cutbacks. The forensics service is estimated to lose about 2 million pounds ($3.1 million) per month.

But the scientists, who Tuesday published a letter in the Times newspaper urging the government to reconsider, say the Birmingham-based Forensic Science Service provides an invaluable tool in the battle against international crime and has been instrumental in the formation of national DNA databases in some 40 countries.

“The FSS has been really instrumental in getting all this technology to work and introducing technology that helps solve crime with a transnational component,” Peter Schneider, vice-president of the International Society for Forensic Genetics, told the Associated Press.

He said cases built on FSS technology have, for example, made it much more difficult for child molesters to cross borders to commit crimes without fear of being accurately tracked and identified by DNA analysis.

“We are upset because the decision to close this down has been made purely on commercial grounds, and we believe its service to the justice system has value that goes beyond economic reasons alone,” he said. “Private companies do not have the resources or the intention to provide this high level research.”

The FSS has played a leading role in solving some of Britain’s most important criminal cases, including the investigation that led to the conviction of the so-called “Suffolk Strangler,” the serial killer found guilty of murdering several prostitutes in the Ipswich area of eastern England in 2006.

It also pioneered the use of familial DNA searching, a technique which helps police identify criminal suspects using genetic material from their relatives, and it helped identify the remains of the last Czar of Russia and his family as part of an Anglo-Russian investigation in 1992.

Britain’s stature as a world research center could be jeopardized if the FSS is closed, scientists maintain.

“England and Wales has one of the best foundations for this work, so many good scientists, good organization, the largest database in the world, there are many reasons to try to keep it in place,” said Niels Morling, president of the Denmark-based forensics group.

In a strictly commercial system, there is no stimulus for costly research and development, he said, predicting that innovative research would suffer.

“You only get small improvements that can make the work cheaper and not necessarily better and you cut corners,” he said, advocating a system like the one in use in Denmark, where forensics work is paid for by various government ministries that fund research, casework and other aspects of the developing science.

The government, which is making broad cutbacks in virtually all fields because of a crunching budget deficit, said the forensic lab is not efficient or competitive.

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