Academic journal article Forensic Science Communications

Critical Human Resource Issues: Scientists under Pressure

Academic journal article Forensic Science Communications

Critical Human Resource Issues: Scientists under Pressure

Article excerpt


Forensic science laboratories have experienced increased demand for more, better, quicker, and cheaper forensic science, integrated databases, and emergent technology (Mennell and Shaw 2006). In the United States, increased demand has resulted in a national case backlog, leaving many public laboratories with the resources to analyze only the most serious cases (Fisher 2003; Perlman 2004). Because of the case backlog, only one-third of the cases submitted to crime laboratories are actually analyzed (Peterson and Hickman 2005).

As part of the organizational structure of police departments, public laboratories provide services without charge to their constituencies. Small police departments often cannot budget the funding to increase staffing or build new facilities. The demand for timely analyses of DNA cases can overwhelm public agencies. As resource constraints limit services, cases are outsourced to private laboratories.

Interventions to improve the situation are hampered in that documentation of staffing issues is limited. Human resources in forensic laboratories can be viewed as assets as opposed to variable costs. A resource-based view proposes that job-related behaviors of employees maximize the overall performance of the organization. The intellectual capital of the laboratory is valuable, rare, inimitable, and nonsubstitutable (Dale and Becker 2005; Wright et al. 1994). Intellectual capital is valuable in that the knowledge, skills, and abilities that forensic employees possess vary greatly within and across laboratories. Employees that work at a higher level of proficiency are more valuable to the laboratory. Laboratories that are able to select, develop, motivate, and retain skilled employees will outperform laboratories that are not. Intellectual capital is rare in that forensic science skills are increasingly in short supply, and there is wide evidence of a growing shortage of needed technical workers (Peterson and Hickman 2005). Intellectual capital is inimitable in that laboratory goals and environmental circumstances must be in alignment; human resource practices and support systems must be designed to retain human resources. Intellectual capital is nonsubstitutable in that laboratories that use management practices to develop and motivate people have a source of sustained competitive advantage over laboratories that do not (Dale and Becker 2005).

The purpose of the present study was to document basic personnel information in laboratories, such as total number of staff, educational degrees obtained, hours worked, pay level, overtime, and number of cases processed. We identified 17 "pressure to perform" variables that we propose are related to resource allocation and time available to forensic scientists to complete casework. We sought to examine more closely the relationship between staffing and performance in public forensic laboratories and to address the following important questions:

* What is the current state of forensic science laboratories in an environment of staff shortages and increased demand for services?

* What impact do these environmental pressures have on laboratory productivity and performance?

* Are laboratories meeting the increased demand for services by outsourcing cases to private laboratories?

Survey of Forensic Science Laboratory Directors

The directors of 250 public forensic science laboratories in the United States were identified as expert informants for staffing and performance issues. A Web-based survey was developed. Web surveys have a high degree of acceptability from respondents, are self-administered, and have a quick turnaround time and low cost (Dillman 2000; Thompson et al. 2003). The use of list-based samples of targeted populations is recommended (Couper 2000). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a list of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD). …

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