Alastair Ross reveals fascinating insights into forensic science

Alastair Ross admitted to a packed crowd that if you looked in the Naracoorte High School records, you wouldn't see his name anywhere in the sporting or academic achievements. 

But Mr Ross is now a Principal Consultant at the Forensic Advisory International, and was formerly the Director of the National Institute of Forensic Science. And at the Naracoorte Bowling Club on Thursday morning, he presented a fascinating lecture on what forensic science is, how it's used, and where it's going in the future.

Mr Ross was there on behalf of the Naracoorte Hospital Auxiliary, and in the audience, students from Frances Primary School were there as guests. Mr Ross himself was formerly from the small school, his family having lived at the property Talageira in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Mr Ross became involved in forensic science through his former work in blood banking, and as he explained to the audience, the actual life of a forensic scientist is very different what we've previously seen on CSI

"We don't all wear Armani suits, or interview suspects, or have cases solved after an hour," he remarked drily. 

"Forensic science is a huge area of enterprise. I'm going to choose some issues that I hope are of interest of you."

These issues were broken into five topic groups - fundamentals; mind games; operating environment; is 'who' the only game in town; and towards 2030.

In the fundamentals, Mr Ross broke down where forensics fits in with the law and justice system. Of 1,000 crimes, only 400 will be reported, 300 will be reported by the police, and charges laid down in court are within the single figures. Forensic science is primarily brought in within the court space.

Police forces across the world are focused on prevention and disruption - trying to predict crimes through hot spots, modus operandi, etc. The job of forensics is to collect, analyse, result, and report. 

Forensics encompasses firearm physics, pathology, clinic medicine, etc. Once the scientists have analysed the crime scene and collected their data, they are left with what, how, and who.  

The next issue was mind games. Whilst people like to think that we can be objective, Mr Ross showed how inattention and cognitive bias can drastically influence how we see what is right in front of us. This may be forgetting to count the letter 'f' in a paragraph, not spotting a gorilla when trying to keep track of a basketball game, or deciding what is a 'dumb rat' or 'smart rat'. 

These mind exercises provided some levity before Mr Ross got into the seriousness of what bias can do in law and justice. It can mean that somebody falsely accused of a bombing in Madrid can have their life ruined. It can mean someone attacked in a simulation can receive wildly conflicting reports from eye witnesses. And in the US, out of 358 prisoners sentenced to death, 71% were found not guilty based on DNA evidence. They had been convicted based on eye witness testimony. 

Mr Ross is also concerned that the police force, and justice system as a whole, can be so focused on 'who' that they ignore the 'how'. This means that something like a tampered DNA kit can have grave consequences for a misidentified perpetrator or an alleged victim. This is why convictions are no longer made based solely on DNA evidence.

But, DNA is still extremely powerful, with less than one in a billion people having the same sequence in just 23 loci. Fingerprint identification is also accurate 99% of the time. 

Which asks the ethical question, ruminated Mr Ross. When does the public good outweigh our right to privacy?

This question has become even more pertinent as organised crime becomes increasingly digital, and our data footprints grow due to internet usage. Of the seven billion people on the planet, four billion have some form of social media. This month, fifteen million Australians will access Facebook. 

This growing surveillance isn't just in our computers or smart phones, either. Can people still be considered 'innocent until proven guilty' if there's CCTV footage, or drone footage of the crime being committed? Even pollen can potentially convict someone, in a growing area of forensics known as microbionics.

Mr Ross finished his talk on that philosophical note, and was free to mingle with friends he hadn't seen in some time after the raffle was drawn.