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Frequently asked questions

Frequently asked questions regarding Forensic Science SA and job opportunities for forensic scientists.

What are the underlying principles of forensic science? 

One of the underlying principles of forensic science is a focus on the source of two items, the questioned item and a known sample, supposed to have originated from a single source. This is achieved using accepted and robust scientific techniques to investigate whether, in the opinion of an expert, they are matched (or possibly matched).

Another principle that underlies forensic science is attempting to explain what has occurred by interpreting the traces, not just one single trace, that remains from activities. A common quote associated with this principle is “every contact leaves a trace”, which means that whenever an event occurs there is a residue that is left behind. If a criminal offence occurs and the trace or traces are collected and the suspected source of those traces identified, the forensic scientist can attempt to match them together. 

What is required of a forensic scientist?  

The word 'forensic' relates to court procedures. Therefore, forensic science is not a particular branch of science but the application of science to the judicial system. The role of the forensic scientist is to assist the court in making its judgement in a particular case by communicating their findings in a way which can be understood by people who are not experts in that area, such as judges, lawyers and juries.

This skill applies to both written reports and when presenting evidence in court. A forensic scientist must be able to demonstrate to the courts that they have the relevant training and experience in the area in which they are giving evidence in order to be considered an expert.

Perhaps most important of all is that a forensic scientist should be independent and impartial. Although forensic scientists may work closely with the police and may be called as a witness by either the prosecution or defence in a court case, it is important they remain independent of either side. 

Forensic scientists must be able to deal with and be open to having their opinions and evidence challenged, be open minded considering all options, including modifying their opinion if necessary when presented with new evidence.

The role of a forensic scientist is to provide evidence to assist the court, regardless of whether it is in the conviction of the guilty, exclusion of a suspect or protection of the innocent.

 Describe the daily routine of a forensic scientist.  

Forensic Science SA (FSSA) is laboratory based. The police crime scene investigators attend the crime scenes, record the scene and collect evidence. The police look after what are known as the police sciences such as fingerprints, tool marks and ballistics but all other evidence is submitted to FSSA. 

Our daily work consists of laboratory work, writing reports, giving evidence in court and liaising with clients. FSSA staff also provide presentations and lectures, supervise research students and validate new methods that might be introduced into the laboratory.

 What do you do as a pathologist and how is pathology used in forensic science?  

A pathologist is a medical doctor who specialises in the diagnosis of disease. A forensic pathologist is a specialist in the diagnosis of disease and injury and how this relates to the legal process. The great majority of the work of a forensic pathologist involves performing autopsy examinations on people who have died to work out how and why they have died and providing an opinion in the form of a written report to the state Coroner.

Most of the work involves cases where there is no suspicion of foul play but where people have died unexpectedly and where the cause of their death is unknown. Sometimes forensic pathologists may assist in identifying people who have died where their identity is not known.

Forensic pathologists also have a role together with other specialists in training and preparing for incidents where there may be multiple casualties. This is known as disaster victim identification (DVI) and occasionally forensic pathologists may be called to help with these incidents overseas.

Cases of suspicious death form a smaller part of the work of a forensic pathologis, requiring them to work as part of a team with the police and the Coroner in the overall investigation, performing an autopsy, writing a report and then appearing as an expert witness in court or at a Coronial inquest.

 When was Forensic Science SA founded and why was it founded?

On July 1 1982, the Forensic Science Division was established by the Government of South Australia in the Department of Services and Supply. It brought together a range of forensic science services that were provided by a number of areas of government including:

  • Institute of Medical & Veterinary Science - IMVS (pathology, biology)
  • government chemist (chemistry, toxicology)
  • police department (trace evidence, document examination) 
  • Australian Mineral Development Laboratories - AMDEL (physical evidence, soil).

This division was located at Divett Place, Adelaide.

In November 1982 a report, on forensic science services in South Australia, was completed by Dr A Curry after a breakdown in confidence in the use of science in crime work in SA.

This was the result of evidence provided to the court in the trial and subsequent conviction in 1978 of Edward Splatt for the 1977 murder of Rosa Simper. Splatt was sentenced to imprisonment for life, however questions were raised regarding the forensic evidence provided by a police officer who had no formal scientific training.

The 1982 report concluded that a “forensic science centre” under independent ministerial control be formed and guided by a director. The forensic science centre should include the existing police laboratory with scientific staff. This was approved and Professor Bill Tilstone was appointed to the position of director in February 1983.

Between January 1983 and March 1984, a Royal Commission was conducted concerning the conviction of Edward Splatt. This Royal Commission concluded that “all relevant material should be sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory. And thereafter the totality of the scientific investigations and analyses should be performed solely by the relevant scientists. There should not be any division of scientific function between police and scientists such as operated in this case”.

In September 1984, the Crammond report was tasked with implementing the recommendations of the report by Dr Curry. The Crammond report recommended that fingerprints, ballistics, toolmark, footprint, tyre track and fracture matching remain a police function and a new organisation structure was adopted.

The department became the Department for State Government Services (known as Services SA) in 1995, following the amalgamation of State Services with the Buildings Department (SACON). Further rationalisation of government departments in October 1997 resulted in Services SA being incorporated as a unit of the Department of Administrative and Information Services (DAIS).

Further rationalisation occurred in 2007, DAIS was disbanded and its agencies redistributed. Forensic Science SA was incorporated into the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD). 

The Director of FSSA reports to the executive director of Legal, Legislative & Justice Services, AGD.

 How many roles are there within Forensic Science SA? 

FSSA has the following operational areas:

  • pathology: post mortem examinations in coronial and police matters and providing opinion on the nature of skeletal bone remains
  • toxicology: analysis of blood and other biological samples from post mortem and live subjects for drugs and poisons, and blood alcohol and drugs in driving analysis for samples taken under the Road Traffic Act
  • biology: examination of biological trace evidence, blood distribution and DNA analysis
  • chemistry: examination of physical evidence (glass, paint, fibres etc), illicit drugs, accelerant and explosive residues, firearms residues, handwriting and document examination
  • administration: a range of administrative services including case and sample receipt, post mortem typing, report dispatch, item movement and dispatch, case records management and other essential support services
  • support staff: other staff involved in providing critical assistance to the operational areas including information technology, science support and quality management.
 What is a forensic anthropologist?  

A forensic anthropologist examines differentially preserved skeletal remains for the purposes of identification. This may be at a broad level (human/non-human) or more specific: age, gender, ancestry, stature, individual characteristics, number of individuals etc. It may also involve documenting the condition of the remains and assessing whether damage occurred prior to, around, or after death.

To become a forensic scientist requires an appropriate degree in science or equivalent as a prerequisite. Higher degrees such as honours, masters or doctorate may be favourable in some instances. The specific studies relevant to the disciplines at Forensic Science SA are:

A molecular biology, genetics or similar major is generally a prerequisite.

A major in chemistry is generally a prerequisite.

A major in chemistry is generally a prerequisite. Experience in pharmacology or immunology may be favourable, in some instances.  

A science or medical/health sciences degree would be favourable in some instances (see also additional requirements for forensic pathologists below).

There are a number of forensic science focussed degrees offered by various academic institutions. However, completion of one of these degrees does not automatically lead to employment in the field. 

Aside from forensic scientist and forensic pathologist positions, Forensic Science SA has forensic officer positions requiring a diploma or advanced diploma in a relevant technical discipline or equivalent and scientific support and administration staff, which do not have specific qualification requirements.

In order to become a forensic pathologist a degree in medicine is required followed by specialist training in pathology. Doctors training to become specialists are called registrars. 

Registrars work and train under the supervision of fully qualified specialists to gain experience and pass the required exams necessary to become a qualified specialist. This specialist training takes approximately five years after completing medical school and internship.

 What do I need to study to become a forensic anthropologist?  

A forensic anthropologist should have a post-graduate qualification in human osteology, physical or biological anthropology, forensic anthropology, or similar. Post-graduate studies generally focus on specific features of human skeletal variation. 

Significant experience in examining human skeletal remains is also considered important for prospective scientists.

 How do I gain employment at Forensic Science SA?

It is not a prerequisite to have completed a forensic science course to be employed at Forensic Science SA. However, there are prerequisite qualifications required for specific positions, such as forensic scientists (What do I need to study to become a forensic scientist?) or forensic pathologists (What study is required to become a forensic pathologist?). 

Due to the unique nature of the work undertaken at Forensic Science SA, it is not a prerequisite to have had any forensic specific training, and extensive training is provided to new employees at Forensic Science SA. Some training programs may take years to complete before the employee is considered an expert in the specific discipline.

Some forensic scientists have previous experience working in a non-forensic setting such as research or industry 

Positions at Forensic Science SA are advertised on Jobs SA and the Graduate Recruitment Register.

 What job opportunities are there?  

There has been growth in forensic science over the past 10 years attributed to the increased profile of the area through television programs like CSI. Forensic laboratories are mostly government-run and with reducing budgets there are very few jobs being advertised at the moment.

Forensic science is a popular field, making positions very competitive. Forensic science is an important part of the justice system so there will always be jobs in the field.

 What specific knowledge does a forensic anthropologist have that pathologists don't?  

A forensic anthropologist specialises in knowledge about variation in skeletal anatomy and aspects that can assist with information about the deceased and events around and after the death. 

The pathologist tends to specialise more in anatomy and pathology of the soft tissues, and can give information about the cause of death (which a forensic anthropologist is not legally allowed to do in Australia).

 Is your job really like CSI?

CSI is based on actual cases and includes factual information relating to some examination techniques and equipment used. However, unlike on the television program, forensic scientists do not go out and catch criminals. 

This is the role of the investigating police officer who may be a detective, major crime scene examiner or crime scene officer attached to a local police service area. In reality many different scientists are responsible for examining the variety of evidence collected, where this seems to be done by a few individuals on CSI. 

Police submit items to FSSA where the forensic scientist will perform the appropriate examinations and provide results to the investigating officer. Generally forensic scientists are working on many cases at once rather than one at a time and the examinations take much longer than 1 hour to analyse all the evidence.

 What do you enjoy most about your job?  

Virtually every day you get to make a difference. Your work directly helps police investigate crimes or helps courts come to the right decisions about people's guilt or innocence and in some instances excludes people as suspects. There is also the opportunity to undertake some research work and to attend conferences where you present your work and meet other scientists.

 How do you see forensic science developing in the future?  

Forensic science will continue to develop and techniques will become more discriminating as technology and knowledge of science increases. 

New instruments will be more sensitive so that we can detect smaller amounts of drugs, they will test more samples and the instruments will become portable so that some of the work will be able to be done at the crime scene and databases interrogated wirelessly to provide police with investigative information much more quickly.