Developing forensic science using research, innovation and technology
Published on 10 June 2021
The Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science (LRCFS) is a £10 million 10-year interdisciplinary research centre established in 2016 engaging interdisciplinary research across all the University's research themes.
The Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science's mission is to develop and communicate robustly scientific methodologies in the service of Justice, harnessing existing understanding, developing new scientific ground truths and innovating new technological solutions for current challenges from the crime scene to the court room.
One such example is the work of LRCFS in the area of illicit production and supply of synthetic drugs, one of the biggest challenges facing public health services, law enforcement agencies, the criminal justice sector and policy makers across the world.
The rise of novel psychoactive substances (NPS) as a means to circumnavigate existing global drug legislation has posed serious challenges to forensic drug chemists as they struggle to maintain a knowledge base to identify these compounds. Working with multiple law enforcement and forensic science organisations, Professor Niamh NicDaeid and Dr Craig McKenzie have:
- created ground truth datasets for use of the forensic science community
- identified and provided assistance to prevent drugs entering prisons
- provided intelligence to the national and international forensic drug community.
LRCFS’s work has implications for policy development for drug use in wider society by contributing to legislative controls. The data is shared with forensic chemists and forensic toxicologists, through publication and direct data sharing with practitioners.
Illicitly produced 'street' benzodiazepine tablets, containing the drug Etizolam, commonly implicated in drug-related deaths in Scotland
Research carried out with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) addresses the characterisation of constantly changing synthetic drugs known as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs), often referred to as ‘spice’. Their use results in high levels of disruption to normal prison life, unpredictable harms to prisoners, with 40% of inmates in Scottish prisons admitting to drug use.
LRCFS has analysed hundreds of samples from the SPS with over 62% positive for SCRAs. Working directly with industry, screening technology has been validated to ensure these instruments are deployable within Scottish prisons and that the derived data has formed the basis for understanding the health implications to prison officers in regard to exposure to NPS materials, helping to define new safety procedures within UK prisons.
Prof NicDaeid is deputy chair of the Dundee Drug Deaths Commission and a Forensic Expert Advisor to the UNODC. Dr Craig McKenzie sits on the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs drug early warning and monitoring panel and on Scottish and UK expert groups on drug use and secondary exposure to psychoactive drugs in prisons, both of which inform on the development of policy directives.
Research data generated by LRCFS has been cited in critical review documents prepared by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which led to the global ban, production and export of several SCRAs. The work of LRCFS feeds directly into local, national and international early warning systems for illicit drugs, enhancing the work of law enforcement agencies and forensic laboratories across the globe and enabling drug workers and harm reduction practitioners to save lives.
Our drug work is only one example of multiple projects within LRCFS helping to develop a robust science base across the crime scene to court ecosystem. We are now building on this research to develop JustTech, the World’s first institute for innovation in forensic science funded through the Tay Cities Regional Deal. JustTech will harness the connectivity and research framework developed within LRCFS across multiple evidence types. This will directly catalyse the deployment of technology, both existing and developing, for implementation within the justice system, at the crime scene, in the forensic science analytical process and in the presentation and communication of science within the courts.