What drives fire investigator Professor Niamh Nic Daeid?
Fire is an obsession that runs in Niamh Nic Daéid’s family. Like her parents, she is a dedicated fire investigator and now, the Grenfell Inquiry expert witness is driving a revolution in forensics. She talks to Vicky Allan
‘MY evidence is on record, that’s all I’m going to say about it,” says Professor Niamh Nic Daéid, as we sit in a large, bright room at the heart of the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science in Dundee, of which she is director.
She is, she explains, reluctant to say more about the fire that ravaged Grenfell tower in 2017 than she has already said as expert witness.
Nic Daéid is one of the top experts in fire investigation in the world. On the Grenfell inquiry website one can watch footage of her testimony and wonder at what it must take to examine scenes which to many of us are too horrifying to look at. Presenting the evidence, she sets out a scientific story, with no obvious emotions attached, in words that are measured and precise. For instance, she says that in her opinion, there was “very, very strong evidence” that the fire started in the “base of the fridge-freezer” of Flat 16.
It makes a strong contrast with the harrowing emotions, the heartbreaking and tragic stories of loss that characterised some of the inquiry. Yet, her evidence is an important part of the story of the fire. Someone has to look at these scenes with this cool, scientific gaze.
It just so happens that when I meet Nic Daéid, she has a black eye. The nonforensic explanation is that she tripped over in the street, and that the impact pushed her glasses into her eye. It’s to her credit that, despite the injury, she goes ahead with the interview, and seems little bothered about it as we talk.
The University of Dundee professor bounds around the Leverhulme centre, showing me a room filled with screens and virtual reality headsets, which is part of a project that will eventually allow experts to walk around virtual fire scenes created through the mobile phone photographs of local fire investigators.
She points out a large shiny bell, screwed into the wall, that is rung when anyone has a great idea. She describes the “blah blah blah” cards that people are encouraged to hold up if anyone is talking too much jargon. For this isn’t a conventional research lab.
The Leverhulme is a centre for “disruption”, funded to the tune of £10 million from the Leverhulme Trust. It is dedicated not just to the science of forensics, but to researching, with the judiciary, the public and other scientists, how to make it work out there in the world of the courts.
How, I ask, does she manage to keep emotions at bay during her work? After all, she’s been involved in a number of horrific cases. “I think as forensic scientists we have to put aside emotion. There’s an obligation on us to do that. We would be doing a disservice to the people who have been affected by these events if we become emotionally involved.”
“I’ve dealt with quite a few cases,” she goes on, “that have involved fire deaths and also that have involved murder cases.” Among these is the study she did into the tragic 2012 house fire which left six children dead and saw their father, Mick Philpott, jailed for life for starting it.
“These are things that the world finds shocking and challenging. I tend to compartmentalise them, so that I don’t become emotionally involved in them. I think many forensic practitioners are like that. And it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we can’t afford to let that emotion cloud our judgement. And so I would do things in a much more dispassionate way, rather than become emotionally involved.”
Nic Daéid, in fact, has been looking dispassionately at fire scenes for many years. Her mother, Caroline, and father, Diarmuid, were the first private fire investigators in Ireland, where they worked for the civil courts. Like her, they were scientists, who brought their knowledge to the job. “My father was a chemist,” she says, “and my mother was a botanist.” She and her brother, growing up in Dublin, were exposed to the science of fire investigation from a very young age.
“I remember heading off down to my grandparents in Kerry,” she recalls, “and Mum and Dad would stop occasionally on the way to investigate a fire. They would take their notes and take photographs and do the scene investigation and we would be left for a couple of hours sat in the car with packets of crisps and sweeties to keep us quiet.”
Her parents talked about fire investigation, she says, all the time. “It would,” she observes, “always be the topic of conversation over the dinner table. Mum and Dad would sit and go through photographs of the scenes they’d been to and discuss it together, trying to work out what would have happened.”
Even now, she says, there’s a joke in her family, whenever she and her mother get together, that there’s a countdown to see how long it takes for the two of them to start talking about fires.
“My mum, she’s in her 70s now, but she was still investigating fires up until her late 60s. When we do have our conversations about fire, she gets fiercely passionate about it. As do I.”
Back in her childhood, she says, a fire investigator was the “last possible thing” she wanted to be. But Nic Daéid didn’t stray that far from the path of her parents. She studied chemistry and mathematics at university. She recalls that at one point she wanted to do quantum mechanics because she found equations very “beautiful”, but her mother, she says, “quite rightly” convinced her to do statistics.
“That was a very wise thing. Always listen to your mother.” She then did a PhD in bio-inorganic chemistry, before going on to get a post as a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde.
It was a job that involved her doing a lot of external teaching, and which took her around the world, helping her develop the extensive network of connections she has now. One of her gifts, she says, has been that she isn’t shy of going up and saying hello to people. “My father was quite a gregarious character, my mother was as well, and I’ve always followed suit in that. Middleaged Irish woman, quite likes to talk.”
Nic Daéid, now an expert in both fire investigation and drug toxicology, gained her professorship at Strathclyde in 2013. “I scraped myself up the hard graft of academia,” she says. “It was a hard struggle. It’s not easy for anyone to reach professorial heights. It’s a bit more challenging for women because we’ve got other draws on our time, but nonetheless I made it.”
She was, she says, the first female professor in the department of chemistry in the history of the University of Strathclyde.
“It was challenging to take that journey. And then when I became a professor it was equally challenging. Because chemistry tends to be very maledominated, and as a female professor of forensic science, you’re out on a strange group anyway. You’re considered one of those funny people that blows things up and sets fire to things and works with drugs, and female as well.”
Funding, she says, has always been hard to get for forensic science from conventional avenues for scientific research. “We’re considered either too basic or too applied. The work that needs to be done, is really challenging – and much of it is yet to be done.”
One of the things that has been lacking, she observes, is a knowledge of
My mum is in her seventies now, but she was still investigating fires up until her late sixties. When we have our conversations about fire, she gets fiercely passionate about it. As do I
background levels of substances – like for instance how much glass might be on the shoes of the average person walking around Dundee. If glass is on the shoes of a suspect, in other words, does that mean they broke the window?
“That’s not sexy science and therefore it isn’t fundable through conventional means. But it’s getting funded in this project.” In fact, currently exactly this question of how much glass is on people’s shoes is being researched by one of their projects in high schools in Dundee.
IT WAS, however, what happened in 2009 that probably most affected the course of her career. For in that year a report was published that rocked forensic science internationally. The Future Of Forensic Science In The United States report exposed a longsuspected truth about forensic science: that many of the techniques used had no underpinning foundational valid science behind them. Some few techniques – for instance DNA analysis, which the report described as “the gold standard” – were considered solid, but many were not.
“This was the case particularly,” says Nic Daéid, “for techniques that involved pattern recognition – things that related to physical comparisons, comparing finger prints to each other, handwriting, tool marks, tyre prints. It said there’s no science behind it whatsoever.”
Some of the work she was doing then was at the more “validated” science end of things – her work with drug chemistry. But, she says, a lot of fire investigation was “very much a black art”.
She was in America when the report came out, and she recalls: “This was a real eye-opener and everyone collectively took an intake of breath.”
We are now nearly 10 years on from that report, and Nic Daéid has certainly made a contribution to changing the forensic science landscape, though there is a long way to go. At the heart of that journey has been her friendship and working relationship with the forensics pioneer Professor Dame Sue Black, who formerly headed up the Leverhulme Research Centre, but has now moved to take up the post of Provost Chancellor at Lancaster University.
Nic Daéid recalls that they first met when she persuaded Black to conduct a workshop for the Forensic Science Society “We hit it off,” she says. “We got on very, very well together from the outset. Two kindred spirits.”
In fact, many of the things Nic Daéid says seem to echo comments I recall from an interview I did with Black many years ago. They share an apparent obsessive work ethic, for instance. Nic Daéid even describes herself as a “card-carrying workaholic”.
“My other half,” she says, “keeps telling me I’m a workaholic. Very occasionally I will take a holiday but you have to drag me kicking and screaming. I have, on occasion, gone home to visit my mother and been taken to a fire scene.”
She has no children. How does she manage to keep sane in the midst of this intensity? “I have cats,” she says. “I do like my cats.”
Nic Daéid credits her work ethic in part to her Kerry grandmother, Geraldine Maguire, a woman with a “strong belief in social justice”.
“She was the kind of person that would say if you put your mind to something and work hard, then you’ll get there. She also encouraged us to learn from the hard knocks of life.”
One of the ways in which she and Black were kindred spirits, she observes, was their shared belief in the need for an interdisciplinary approach.
THIS was an idea which Nic Daéid originally floated in an inaugural lecture she gave at Strathclyde, and which Black, then in the audience, backed. The pair then went on to collaborate in organising a ground-breaking event at the Royal Society in London, which brought together forensic scientists, senior judges and other scientists, to discuss the problems in that interface between the courts and forensics professionals. What was discussed at that event, Nic Daéid says, was “the seed corn” of the centre she runs today.
Another of her good friends is Val McDermid. She and the crime author first met in the early 2000s when she was looking after the writer at a Forensic Science Society event, and they later worked together when McDermid was writing her factual book, Forensics: The Anatomy Of Crime, of which a chapter is dedicated to Nic Daéid’s work.
The forensic scientist then went on to help McDermid with her research, and has even inspired, like Sue Black, a character in her fiction. “It’s pretty recognisable when you start to read it,” Nic Daéid says. “A professor of fire and explosion investigation called Sunny O’Brien? But she’s very sweet and Val and I have a strong friendship that goes back a long time. She’s very good
My other half keeps telling me I’m a workaholic. You have to drag me on holiday kicking and screaming. I have, on occasion, gone home to visit my mother and been taken to a fire scene
Our philosophy of working together comes out of the Scottish Enlightenment
for us here.” One of the things that is clear, just from spending time in the Leverhulme centre, is that a lot of fun goes on here, as well as hard work. With its comfy sofas, “blah blah” cards and giant cartoons on the wall, you would think it was a Silicon Glen start-up rather than an academic institution.
That entrepreneurial feel sits well with the centre’s latest project, Just Tech, which brings technology and industry together to work on developments in forensic science, and recently received £15 million from the Tay Cities deal.
The place is partly about bringing people from different disciplines together. “Sue and I,” Nic Daéid says, “read a book that described interdisciplinary ‘Medici intersections’. It comes from the Medici family, who, in the Renaissance would provide opportunities for people from different disciplines – artists, writers, scientists, engineers, natural philosophers – to all come together, in a space where they could work together to solve a problem. And that’s what we do. We bring people together.”
This centre in Dundee is at the heart of a revolution in forensic science – why does she think it’s happening here in Scotland? “For me it goes back to how Scotland has organised herself. We have one prosecutorial service. We have a single police force – that’s important. We have a single forensic science laboratory that’s not a commercially driven entity. All of the labs in England and Wales are now commercially driven and their marketplace is completely privatised.”
But, she says, there is more to it than just that. “It’s partly our philosophy of working together, which comes out in part of the Scottish Enlightenment. The Enlightenment here emerged in a different way than it did England and Wales and France and elsewhere, because instead of just having scientists and natural philosophers working together to solve problems we also had artists and writers and poets and we brought them all together in sort of a rammy.”
She couldn’t, she adds, imagine the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science being anywhere other than Scotland. “I also,” she adds, “couldn’t actually envisage it being anywhere other than Dundee. It wouldn’t fit properly in the central belt. It needed to be off-centre. Because it is off-centre.”
Just as, I suggest, she is. “Oh, quite definitely,” she agrees.
Photographs (from below left): fire investigator Professor Niamh Nic Daéid; the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire; the scene of the tragic 2012 house fire which left six children dead and Mick Philpott, who was jailed for life for starting it, pictured with his wife Mairead
Author Val McDermid: theirs is ‘a strong friendship that goes back a long time’