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The evidence is everywhere

And the EPSRC is funding research to develop the next generation of technologies to do just that.

Many of today's criminals use a degree of sophistication that would have amazed their more physical forebears. The widespread adoption of computers, for example, has been accompanied with increasing levels of cybercrime.

The fight against crime is increasingly being led by forensic science, long thought of as the domain of test tube wielding chemists and scalpel waving biologists. However, forensic investigation in the 21st Century is increasingly harnessing many other areas of science and engineering technology to detect crime – such as the examination of computer hard disks. But science and technology are also being used in crime prevention.

Recognising this trend, and the fact that criminals are just as adept at using the latest technology to further their aims, the EPSRC launched the Crime Technology Programme in November 2002 to keep crime prevention and detection abreast of the latest technological opportunities.

The programme intends to encourage a broader array of scientists and engineers to think how their discipline and expertise might help combat crime and terrorism in the UK. Over the last four years, it has invested more than £10million in a variety of research projects that could represent the crimebusting techniques of tomorrow.

Whilst the programme has been deemed 'fighting crime by research', funding is not available to those conducting research alone. The EPRSC has stipulated that funding will only be available for collaborative research that partners academics with end users – for example, the police, industry and public bodies – in a bid to ensure that projects result in useable technologies.

Amongst the research ideas already supported by the EPSRC under the programme are alternative approaches to CCTV, electronic tagging and tracking technology for property and animals, and wireless intelligent alarm systems. And with four rounds of funding under its belt and the latest call for proposals in progress, it's an ideal opportunity to turn the magnifying glass onto some of the projects already underway.

Among the projects that have received funding are those that come under the umbrella of providing more detailed information from the crime scene.

Fingerprints are notoriously difficult to retrieve from metal objects, such as gun cartridges or bomb fragments, largely because the heat created by detonation can deteriorate these 'sweat' prints significantly. Professor Neil McMurray of the University of Wales Swansea has led a team that has collaborated with QinetiQ and the Forensic Science Service to develop a technique to overcome the problem. Using a Scanning Kelvin Probe (SKP) to detect differences in electrical potential across a surface, the researchers are exploiting the electrochemical reactions that are caused when sweat comes into contact with a metal surface. The changes caused by these reactions are measured and used to build a picture of the print, a process which is said to even be possible on metal surfaces that have been exposed to heat up to 600°C.

Vanessa Knivett

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