In society, the division of labour between different individuals is important to continue the functionality of the collective population. Everyone has different roles and responsibilities. Numerous industries exist, each fulfilling a unique purpose. The same is true in research – specialization within niche fields is becoming more and more common. Researchers study different things, and even those working in the same lab will have different research focuses. Despite, and in light of, the narrowing of individual focuses, collaborations become more and more important in order to ensure that we can all function cohesively as well as individually.
In July, I attended the MSCA ESOF Conference in Manchester. The theme of the conference was “Researcher and Society”. The presentations and panel discussions duly followed this theme by discussing and debating the role of a researcher in public outreach, policy-making, and even in politics (the latter which is unsurprising, given the recent events surrounding Brexit). The speakers were proactively engaged in projects to make science exciting, appealing, and accessible to the public, while demonstrating their approaches to convince policy-makers of the value of investing in research. Interestingly, some members in the audience disagreed with these initiatives, stating that such endeavours were wasted – how can we, as researchers, convince laypeople that science is important if the complexities of our research are already poorly understood? Furthermore, is it even our job to ensure that our work is understandable to society? The disparity between the opinions of those in the audience made it clear that there was no straight-forward answer.
The MSCA ESOF reception and dinner was held at the Manchester Museum, which was the most unique conference venue I have been to so far!
These discussions made me think about the INTREPID training sessions we received about expert witness testimony in the U.K. There exists disparity between how lawyers, police officers, and forensic scientists use and understand forensic evidence. This creates serious issues regarding biases, misunderstandings, and miscarriages of justice. During one of our training sessions, we had a similar debate to the one at the ESOF Conference in Manchester – whose responsibility is it to ensure that forensic science is used properly? Some of us thought that we just had to do our jobs as analysts, and that our role ends after conveying the results of our analyses to the court. Some argued that it was central to our role as forensic scientists, and that it was also our ethical responsibility to ensure that lawyers and the jury not only hear, but also understand the implications of our analyses.
So whose responsibility is it? We are all cogs in a system, each of us performing our own roles that impact others. But spaces exist between cogs, and if our focuses and roles shrink, these spaces will eventually be too big to make the system work. This is why collaborations – particularly interdisciplinary ones – are so important for bridging these gaps. Collaborations need to also extend outside academia if we are going to make any impact on society. This was precisely what was addressed in one of the thematic discussions held at the University of Lausanne’s forensic science summer school in Les Diablerets, Switzerland.
I attended this summer school in August along with Etienne, and one of the activities involved having interactive discussions with the audience about various topics regarding the use of big data, forensic databases, and data retention. In many of the discussions, the need to collaborate with others outside of forensic science was made clear: we should work with the media to establish public awareness of social issues that forensic scientists are tackling (e.g. wildlife DNA forensics as intelligence to prevent elephant poaching); and police, lawyers, and forensic scientists need to learn enough about each other’s fields in order to properly and ethically utilize forensic databases.
It is fairly easy to pinpoint and to discuss what should be done; it is harder to come up with practical solutions that can be feasibly implemented. Unsurprisingly, we were not able to solve the issues that hinder perfect collaborations between forensic scientists, police, lawyers, the media, politicians, and the public. But I think it is fair to say that at the end of the summer school, every participant in the summer school left the beautiful Swiss Alps with some new ideas, and inspiration to change things for the better.
So, what can we do? Certainly we cannot completely change the current framework in which we work, at least not by ourselves and not immediately. But we can start by filling in the spaces between the cogs – to ensure that the scope of our work extends just enough to overlap with someone else’s in a different field. Specialization doesn’t necessarily mean we must have tunnel vision. We should actively work at finding links between our work and the greater social context, and establish joint partnerships and collaborations. We should not be afraid of taking on responsibilities that extend our roles past strictly what is in our job description.