Forensic science has guiding principles for the profession. First, forensic scientists should have technical competence and employ reliable methods of analysis. Second, scientists should maintain honesty with respect to qualifications and should confine examinations to their areas of expertise. Next, scientists should partake in intellectual honesty concerning the scientific data on which their conclusions and opinions are based. Finally, the objectivity in the review of evidence and the delivery of expert testimony is a principle of forensic science. The delivery of expert testimony refers to assuring the information is understandable to nonscientific fact finders. These guiding principles are the basis of ethics in forensic science, but how do we provide all forensic scientists with this understanding of the profession? In a word, education.
Ethics is a difficult subject to teach, which is why historically there has been a perceived lack of ethics training in forensic science. There is a debate about how and where to teach ethics. First, it is commonly thought that those with the highest ethics will enter the field. Second, it is commonly believed that ethics are learned over the course of one’s life so that formal training is unimportant. Finally, resources in forensic science are spars, so when a forensic scientist receives training it should be on topics directly related to their job duties. Do ethics enter into a person’s day-to-day work? Should training resources, which are lacking, be utilized for subjects such as ethics over discipline-specific training? Ethics has been taught informally by example or through the use of examples from the real world in the past, so why to change the passive, informal, implicit instruction? Unfortunately, informal training may have downfalls and not provide a clear, standardized foundation for forensic scientists so formal education is necessary. Science is now larger, faster, more complex, more technical, and more expensive; is under the scrutiny of government, media, and society due to its popularity; and consists of greater pressures to publish and to obtain funding. Higher education forensic science undergraduate and graduate programs incorporate ethical issues into a variety of courses as an underlying theme of forensic science. When college students are asked if they have had an ethics course (or even a lecture dedicated to the topic), most respond that they have not. Colleges and universities are equipping students with information on the ethics in the practice of forensic science; however, the students do not realize the value of the lessons they are taught until they need to apply the concepts to real-world situations. In the discussion of ethics in higher education, one must consider some additional questions. At what level of education should ethics be taught? Is it the responsibility of middle or high schools to teach ethics? How do ethics relate to religion? How should ethics be taught—as philosophy, as history, or as it is practically applicable to professions? Who should teach ethics? Should ethics be covered in undergraduate programs or only graduate programs? Why should people take an ethics class if they have learned ethics throughout their life? Should laboratories assure that all employees receive ethics training upon hire? Should agencies be required to update employees every so often? What do you think?
Currently, there are steps toward a decision regarding how and where to teach ethics in forensic science. There is a uniform curriculum provided by the Forensic Science Educational Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) for all college-level academic programs in forensic science. Though accreditation is voluntary for higher education institutions, ethics is a required part of accredited degree programs. In addition, the Quality Infrastructure Committee which is part of the Forensic Science Standards Board FSSB, a part of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSACs) will create a Forensic Science Code of Practice, will guide quality issues, and will inform management about how specific standards apply. The mission of the OSACs is to strengthen forensic science through technical leadership, standards, and guidelines. The mission and subsequent actions indicate that the profession is interested in creating and maintaining scientific practices rooted in integrity. The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board has required laboratories seeking accreditation to assure that new laboratory employees have a minimum amount of ethics training. Ethics classes do not seek to teach right from wrong; information is provided regarding the importance of ethical conduct and potential areas of conflict to facilitate advanced knowledge of the subject. Ethics courses are intended to provide a foundation to expand people’s perspectives, to assist in creating open minds, and to foster awareness. It seems that refresher courses have an effect on people, even if it is subconscious. Dan Ariely (2008), who teaches behavioral economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses the surprising effectiveness of honor codes in schools and in workplaces in his book Predictably Irrational.
It does seem more effective if people are reminded of their ethical responsibilities on a regular basis—even if they’re ethical people, the reminder serves as a booster. Annual refresher training would be a useful addition to professional meetings or in-service classes.
Guidelines for education in forensic ethics include reading, writing, and discussing the topic, as well as reviewing cases in which ethical issues arose. Education on ethics should encourage the acceptance of uncertainty while fostering the responsibility for a questioning attitude. The goal of teaching ethics is to shape human conduct through the ability to observe the big picture. Those who teach ethics need to promote informal learning by acting as role models and mentors, and through casual discussions with students. A high-quality ethics course teaches students the awareness of the types of errors, sources for errors, and the importance of avoiding errors. Requirements for specific and appropriate education are necessary to standardize the curriculum of ethics courses. Standardization of content is difficult because of a lack of funding, the widespread physical location of scientists, and the range of experience levels and/or discipline focuses. In the past, scientists have become forensic scientists as a response to a need in the field and a lack of formalized training. With the development of academic programs in forensic science at the college level and the FEPAC, ethics courses in forensic science are becoming part of the regular curriculum at every academic level. Ethics courses are implemented because codes of ethics are general in nature, the proper cause of action is not always obvious in every situation, or not all professional standards are appropriate in every situation. It is important to remember that a course in ethics will not provide answers to dilemmas or provide the correct answers for situations; however, ethics courses should provide people with the tools to question, evaluate, and discuss situations and possible outcomes from a variety of perspectives. Ethics training can provide individuals with the awareness of what is happening, and more importantly, how it is happening so that they may recognize when colleagues are not maintaining the honesty and integrity that are critical to the forensic science professional culture.
What are the necessary points to cover in a forensic ethics course? The core values in teaching ethics are integrity, innovation, commitment, and communication. Course materials should contain a balance of case studies, theory, and methods. Students should learn official codes of ethics, terminology, and the key concepts in the profession. It is important for instructors to present a range of values beyond their own, just as exposure to differing views is necessary for students. As instructors develop ethics courses, they should consider what texts to use, what additional resources are available, and what copyright information is necessary. Textbooks, published articles, computer programs, web pages, and video recordings are the excellent means of providing information. Studying actual cases of misconduct that have occurred in the profession is the most valuable tool in educating students about ethics, especially with a professional focus. Any new knowledge is useful for stimulating thoughts and creativity that encourage people to make changes and prevent future problems. The goal of ethics courses is to provide students with the skills to identify, articulate, and resolve ethical problems. Courses should increase students’ understanding of underlying moral and ethical principles, should help develop students’ ability to analyze problem situations and make decisions, should encourage the development of skills and confidence to resolve ethical problems, and should allow individuals to play devil’s advocate regarding opinion, causes, and motives. The requirements provide an outline of the important aspects of a course on forensic ethics.