Patricia Wiltshire is supposed to be retired, but she has never been so busy. An environmental forensic scientist, she uses her background in botanical ecology, zoology, geology, and archaeology to help the police solve crimes. She can determine the likely escape path of a criminal by studying the trampled plants near a crime scene, link suspects to crimes by analysing plant residue on their shoes, or show which country or region a footprint comes from by analysing the makeup of the soil. This rare combination of skills, built up over many years–and an assertive character in court–has kept her in demand.
Crime solving is probably the best-known job in this discipline right now, thanks to television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. But Wiltshire’s career path is rare among environmental forensic scientists. Most of the professionals who go by that name study contamination or pollution, work on legislative issues, and prepare environmental-impact assessments for new development such as airports.
The similarity between what Wiltshire and the characters on CSI do and the more common career path of environmental forensic scientists is tenuous. “Some people see the term ‘environmental forensics’ and believe it is a cynical ploy to hitch a wagon onto the bandwagon of forensics,” says Matthew Bennett, a professor at the School of Conservation Sciences at the University of Bournemouth in the U.K. But the broader meaning of forensics applies to both types of work.
Environmental forensics–the more common kind–is an established discipline in North America, but in the United Kingdom and Europe, the field has emerged more slowly. It’s gaining speed, however, says Graham Parry, director of the environmental division of the consulting firm Temple Group. “Firstly, the amount of European legislation which affects our environment is increasing,” he says. “And secondly, companies are keen to be seen to be following good corporate governance and becoming more environmentally friendly. We are also seeing an increase in litigation, as has been the case for a while in the U.S.”
Consequently, Bennett says, a forensics focus has become more important for environmental scientists. “There is a real need, especially in Europe, for higher education to recognise the importance of environmental scientists having a training in legislation and law.” Some mainstream environmental science programs have added legislation and law to their curricula–but not enough, in Bennett’s eyes.
Other U.K. universities have responded in a different way. The University of Wales in Bangor, Bournemouth University, and Queens University in Belfast now have undergraduate or master’s degree programs in environmental forensic science.
An interdisciplinary career
Environmental forensics encompasses all aspects of pollution and contamination in air, water, soil, and biota, so working in the field requires sound training in a wide swath of science. A good scientific background is essential, for example, for understanding the issues related to certain contaminants, why they could be injurious to health, and the extent to which they can degrade in the ground to form potentially toxic contaminants.
But the legal part is at least as important. “Having a good science background used to be good enough to get a job in environmental science,” Bennett says. “Now, environmental scientists need to have a knowledge of regulations and the law because our environment is becoming increasingly regulated.”
There’s one other thing that the two “environmental forensics” career tracks have in common: Professionals on both tracks often appear in court, so communication skills–specifically, the ability to present a case in court and hold it up to a rigorous cross-examination–are assets. Parry, for example, says he enjoys giving evidence at public inquiries, where he and his staff are often required to provide expert evidence on noise, ecology, air quality, and contamination. “There are far better theoretical acousticians out there than me,” he admits. “But the difference is that I thrive on public forums, and I was trained in public speaking and acting.”
Outside of court, Parry and his staff at Temple carry out environmental audits and risk assessments and advise their clients on potential remediation liabilities and costs. They also act as advisers to residents and others affected by land contaminants.
Parry’s company recruits graduates from environmental earth sciences, environmental health, acoustics, and ecology, among other disciplines. He favours graduates who have taken broad, science-focused bachelor’s degrees and a narrower, more specialised training at the master’s level. “Someone with an M.Sc. in air-quality monitoring or environmental pollution and protection may be much more employable than someone with just a broad environmental sciences degree,” he says. Is a Ph.D. an asset? That credential sounds good in court, he says, but “a Ph.D. is often too narrow and can make someone overqualified for a job.”
But no matter what science qualification candidates have, Parry says, their knowledge of environmental legislation and law is never sufficient when they first join the firm. “Even when someone has done a specialist M.Sc., we find they do not know enough about legislation to work for us without additional training,” says Parry. “It is a long process before they get anywhere close to what we need.”
Parry isn’t the only one seeking environmental scientists with a good knowledge of the law. Such specialists are in high demand currently and can command good salaries. At Temple–Parry’s company–salaries range from £19,000-£25,000 for junior consultants and range up to £35,000-£50,000 for senior consultants. Technical directors can earn as much as £90,000. “This is a growth industry,” says Parry, “and hundreds of companies are recruiting at the moment.”
Across the big pond
Parry’s observation that his new recruits never know enough about the law may be why in the U.S. many environmental forensic scientists get training in chemistry or geology and then go on to do a law degree. Robert Morrison, founder of the International Society of Environmental Forensics in Amherst, Massachusetts, and editor of Environmental Forensics Journal, the only peer-reviewed international journal on the subject, says there’s no shortage of opportunities in the United States, either, for people with a background in environmental science and the law. “In the U.S., environmental forensic scientists work as private environmental consultants, government enforcement officials, in-house insurance assessors, corporate scientists, and academics,” he says.
Apart from legal knowledge, “the most common denominator skills are a strong chemistry foundation followed by statistics, geology, and often an understanding of soil, groundwater, [and] surface or air contaminant modelling,” Morrison says. “A working knowledge of what analytical techniques are available, robust, and appropriate for a particular contaminant is also required.”
The pleasures the work offers are similar, too–as are the pains. “I never know what sort of job is going to come up next,” Wiltshire says. The best bit about her job is when she has a success. And the worst bit? “The sheer tedium of routine analysis and hours of microscopy.”