Forensic science is known as the application of science to criminal and civil laws, but most people do not realize there is a large business component to it all – the business of forensics. In fact, West Virginia University has the world’s leading experts in this particular area of the field. This includes Dr. Paul Speaker, an associate professor of finance at the College of Business and Economics.
“The forensic science initiative is a University-wide objective, and there was a great piece for the College to participate,” Speaker said. “Across a lot of efforts, the College has really been able to do that. What’s the College’s role with STEM areas? Well, this is it. We can help all of these other areas in some fairly interesting ways and can participate. It’s been a nice way to be involved and say, ‘Look, we have this expertise. It also applies over here.’ There’s a huge business component that goes on there.”
Speaker recently showed the power of this WVU initiative and business of forensics by presenting at both the INTERPOL Forensic Science Managers Symposium in Lyon, France, and at Looking Ahead: The National Sexual Assault Symposium in Washington, D.C. His contributions to the industry and his efforts to spread the word have also put B&E and the Department of Finance on the map.
“Dr. Speaker has become a world-renowned scholar and expert in forensic valuation. His contributions to the National Sexual Assault Policy Symposium and his presentations this past month at Interpol create visibility and recognition to the finance department and the College of Business and Economics on both a national and international platform,” Dr. Naomi Boyd, chair of the Department of Finance, said. “He has been successful in carving out a very valuable niche area with both practical contributions to the field, as well as scholarly work. Dr. Speaker regularly brings in sponsored research. He is truly making a difference through his groundbreaking valuation models, which will allow for better and more efficient processing of forensic evidence in jurisdictions nationwide.”
INTERPOL is the world’s largest international police organization, with 190 member countries and the mission to enable police around the world to work together to make the world a safer place. The organization also maintains databases of fingerprints and DNA to help police make connections between criminals and crime scenes, as well as provide training to these police.
“We’ve been doing this since the beginning of the forensic science initiative here at WVU. Every three years, they hold this INTERPOL meeting, and the idea is to discuss everything that’s happened in the last years in forensic science,” Speaker said. “In 2010, they included for the first time a business section. I think we hit the tipping point this year where people are saying, ‘We need more of this, and we don’t need as much of the hard science stuff.’”
In Lyon, Speaker presented on grant project FORESIGHT 2020, which was funded by The Laura and John Arnold Foundation. He and his partners are working with major Laboratory Management Information System providers to create free program software that automatically reports the data in the FORESIGHT project, producing financial and operational management metrics to laboratories. In turn, they receive all the data for the industry and use this for other research efforts. The recent grant with Research Triangle Institute funds the storage and evaluation of the data.
“The talk I gave at INTERPOL was to kind of tell the rest of the world, ‘This is what we have going on in the US. This is freeware. Although it’s designed for U.S. laboratories, it’s available to everyone around the world.’ If they’re using any of the laboratory management information systems, it’s just an add-on for them they can get, have it installed and participate,” he said. “It was fun because after talking, we had a fairly substantial number of laboratories pulling me aside to be able to say, ‘Well, the Greece National Laboratory would like to be involved, and we can do this now.’ The list kept growing and growing. We had someone from Mumbai who said they would like to be the first Indian lab to be involved. It was kind of a neat forum where you’re just spreading the word of an expertise we have here that nobody else in the world has.”
On the other hand, Speaker said the National Sexual Assault Policy Symposium was a little grittier. He participated in a panel discussion titled, Building an Efficient Laboratory Using Technology and Innovative Processes.
“In going through this, they wanted stories of various laboratories around the country, various police departments. Some of these are heart wrenching. You have people who are survivors from assault who are up there speaking about what their experience was and the amount of time in between things getting tested or just what happened. It’s a very emotional type thing,” he said. “And part of it is also the planning. That’s where we came in. I worked with a couple lab directors to kind of talk about what they need to plan for. This is where the research we’ve done here at WVU comes to be so powerful.”
Working on the business side of forensics has afforded Speaker a lot of dynamic research opportunities, meet interesting people throughout the world and the ability to learn things outside the business realm. He also helps to give graduate students an interesting look behind the scenes at actual laboratories.
“We have a great relationship with both West Virginia State Police Laboratory and Allegheny County (Pa.) Office of the Medical Examiner. When I have graduate students working with me, I generally take them up to Pittsburgh to see the laboratory there, and that’s the office of the medical examiner so it’s not just the forensic laboratory. They’re doing autopsies when you’re coming through. They’re harvesting body parts — skin, bones and things that can be used to save lives,” he said.
While obviously all aspects of the research are interesting, what are the exact benefits of this project?
“We do a lot of corporate finance work. And when people hear corporate finance work, they only tend to think of the private side where it’s a for-profit. But it turns out that all of the corporate finance directions apply to the public sector, it applies to nonprofits. Their objectives are different,” he said. “We are making a difference in how these organizations operate.”