Aston University in Birmingham has been awarded a £5.5 million grant by Research England to create a world-leading centre of excellence in forensic linguistics research and practice. Aston University will itself be investing £500,000 in the new Institute.
The new Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics, which is being backed with government investment through the modern industrial strategy, will include the creation of a pioneering forensic linguistics resource, named the Forensic Linguistic Databank. This databank will be a global precedent, providing a permanent, controlled access repository for malicious communication data, investigative interview data and forensic evidence validation data for both speech and text.
Research projects use of this data will validate methods for forensic analysis, further the effectiveness of interviewing techniques used by British police, and help tackle internet crime and abuse on behalf of law enforcement beneficiaries like the National Crime Agency.
A recruitment drive will include the appointment of a Professor of Language and Law, Lectureships in both Forensic Linguistics and Forensic Speech Science and ten post-doctoral research positions. This will establish significant new research teams in the areas of investigative text analysis, linguistics in legal contexts, language and law as well as forensic speech science.
The Institute - which is one of four new University Research Institutes set to be launched at Aston - will expand on the work of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics (CFL), established in 2008 under the directorship of Professor Malcolm Coulthard, a global authority in the field. For over a decade, the Centre has been taking a scientific approach to language analysis to help acquit the innocent and convict the guilty, with members of CFL involved in more than 200 cases in the UK and around the world.
The unit notably worked on the case of Matthew Falder who in October 2017 was convicted of 137 charges involving online sexual abuse. In April 2019 Professor Tim Grant, along with then member of CFL Jack Grieve, were awarded Director’s Commendations from the National Crime Agency for their role in the investigation. Falder had coerced his online victims into sending him degrading images of themselves or into committing crimes such as rape or assault and has been described in the media as one of the UK's most prolific paedophiles. Professor Grant was recruited as the only academic onto an interdisciplinary investigative team involving forensic psychologists, behavioural analysts, computer and cybercrime specialists and others. Using techniques and skills developed at CFL, Grant and Grieve examined Falder’s anonymous online writings - both his abuse conversations with victims, and his interactions on the dark web with other offenders - and drew up a profile based on his language use, which was used as part of the investigation search strategy. In addition to this, they developed new methods to analyse Falder’s anonymous writings and used this analysis to search for his messages on the open web. These methods are now being further developed as research projects within CFL.
Professor Tim Grant, Director of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics, said: “This is fantastic news for the Centre for Forensic Linguistics, for Aston University and for the disciplines of forensic linguistics and forensic speech science more widely.
“In our work we analyse text and speech samples of value to criminal investigations and civil cases, and provide expert evidence for the courts. We are also interested in the way that language is used in police interviews and in the courtroom, with the aim of offering equal access to justice for linguistically disadvantaged groups. With a marked increase in cyber-enabled and cyber-dependent crimes in recent years, a significant proportion of our activity is now centred on online criminal environments, which have become an urgent research site for evidence-based policing.
“This new investment by Research England and Aston University takes our work to the next level. We will be creating, FoLD, a Forensic Linguistics Databank of text and speech samples from forensic contexts as a national and international resource. This will not only further our research aims to develop new methods and approaches, it will also directly contribute to impact in assisting the delivery of justice.”
Professor Simon Green, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Aston University, said: “Research England’s grant not only demonstrates our commitment to investing in high quality research, but will enable us to realise the possible returns and related societal impact that forensic linguistics can bring to England, the UK and the world.
“While Aston University has invested in the Centre for Forensic Linguistics over a period of ten years, the additional funding will allow the research unit to reach critical mass and become self-sustaining in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible before.
“In my view, the grant will absolutely strengthen the English University sector’s contribution to society, not only by building capacity and quality in forensic linguistic research but also by delivering societal impact and supporting the delivery of justice.”
The investment comes as part of the Expanding Excellence in England Fund (E3), which supports the country’s world-leading universities to shape new innovations in the economy and provide the skills to support the highly skilled jobs of the future. The government is providing the biggest boost to research and development funding in UK history, as part of its ambition to raise the level of R&D funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
Chris Skidmore, the Universities and Science Minister, said: “Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and conquering new innovations are what our universities are known for the world over. This programme led by Aston University will be instrumental in bringing criminals to justice through speech forensics.
“The Expanding Excellence in England Fund will support projects throughout England to master new and developing areas of research and industry.
“Made possible through our record R&D spend delivered by our modern Industrial Strategy, the investment will support researchers to develop solutions and opportunities for UK researchers and businesses.”
Photos (click links to download)
- Aston University campus pictures
- Further images illustrating the work of the new Institute for Forensic Linguistics are available upon request. These images include examples of comparative authorship analysis
Interviews available upon request with:
Tim Grant – Director of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics and Professor in Forensic Linguistics
About the Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University
The Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University was in 2008 the first of its kind in the world and still leads globally. It combines leading-edge research and investigative practice with teaching and training in forensic linguistics. Research at the Centre involves all aspects of forensic linguistics from how the police and the courts can best work with interpreters to the development and refinement of methods for identifying the author of disputed forensic texts. Through high-quality research, the unit ensures that its undergraduate, postgraduate and professional courses, as well as its investigative work, have a solid academic foundation.
About Aston University
Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice Chancellor & Chief Executive.
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