Forensic engineering scientists make up perhaps the most varied group of forensic practitioners. Collectively, their interests extend across all of the engineering fields as well as the underlying sciences such as physics and chemistry. They are problem solvers and problem definers who are often brought into an investigation with no clear definition as to what they are going to do but with the expectation that they will do something useful. For example, Caltech Physicist, Richard B. Feynman, was asked to address the Challenger disaster not because of his quantum field theory work that brought him the Nobel Prize but because he represented the epitome of a field known for its problem-solving genius.
In broad terms, these individuals perform research and design services in addition to building, manufacturing, and maintaining structures and devices that sustain and improve our modern way of life. They deal with mechanisms, heat, sound, electricity, fluids (gases and liquids), the environment, weapons systems, transportation, the biosciences, food production, and communications. In short, just about everything you see around you every day and some things that you do not see (such as pacemakers, groundwater, and artificial joints). Above all else, human health and safety are overriding concerns for the forensic engineer.
Scope of Work
The forensic scientist or engineer applies the tools and techniques of science and engineering to resolve questions relating to civil, criminal, and regulatory issues. Forensic scientists and engineers typically investigate accidents, product failures, environmental contamination, and criminal acts. Incident investigations may involve bridge or building collapses, automobile collisions, air and rail accidents, explosions, shootings, and stabbings. Practitioners of forensic engineering sciences may be involved in helping to apprehend and convict criminals on the one hand or exonerating and protecting the innocent on the other. They may also provide support in lawsuits based on claims that negligent acts caused personal injury. Other cases may use forensic engineers to correctly assign blame for environmental harm, to evaluate claims that product flaws resulted in injury to the user of the product, and to show whether patent rights have been infringed.
Many requests for forensic engineering services involve criminal and civil suits in which the forensic scientist or engineer will be asked to render expert opinions regarding the results of examinations. These opinions may receive further scrutiny in a deposition or during a trial. In most legal disputes involving science and engineering issues, each party will have their own experts who will evaluate the credibility of the proffered forensic analysis.
Forensic engineers on-site investigating an accident.
Education and Training
Before becoming a forensic scientist or engineer, you must first become a scientist or an engineer. Student engineers/scientists require a good grasp of the basic sciences of mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. An individual specializing in any one of these disciplines should have a broad-based education that will provide a good understanding of all other disciplines. The forensic engineer or scientist should become an expert at one or more component disciplines. Examples might involve becoming an expert in environmental data collection and analysis including use of the mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph. As another example, the forensic engineer/scientist might become an expert in electronic components and system design to enable the diagnosis of system failures and design flaws. In still another example, the investigator of an accident involving military munitions should have become expert in non-destructive, non-invasive evaluation using advanced imaging techniques such as gamma radiography, ultrasound, and MRI scans in order to ascertain what went wrong.
The minimum education required is a bachelor’s degree in engineering or science. Depending on the field chosen, an advanced degree, MS or PhD, may be recommended. Work experience in the chosen field is a plus. Other essential capabilities include writing and speaking skills. Knowledge and understanding of legal procedures and standards of proof are often important. Some engineers acquire a Professional Engineer (PE) license; however, a PE is not required. Active participation in professional organizations and continuing education are highly recommended. The forensic engineer or scientist must be highly competent, ethical, credible, and should have extensive professional experience in the subject matter under consideration.
Inspecting a product for design defect is just one of the many
applications called upon by the forensic engineer.
Job opportunities for forensic engineering scientists track those for other types of forensic practitioners—crime labs at the federal, state, and local levels; law enforcement agencies; research laboratories; insurance companies, and small or large corporations.
An opportunity for private consulting practice exists for many forensic engineering scientists once they are well into their professional lives. Far more than in any other sections of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Members and Fellows in the Engineering Sciences Section operate their own consulting firms that range in size from a single practitioner to multiple individual experts. The primary clients for these small consulting firms are attorneys with civil and criminal practices, corporations, states, municipalities, as well as prosecutors at all levels of government. Some engineers and scientists are choosing to pursue forensic engineering sciences as a first career, which adds a younger contingent to this growing community.