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A Q&A with Professor Kate Bowers

As a leading Professor in Crime Science at UCL’s Department of Security and Crime Science, Kate Bowers has been involved in her field for 25 years. Having published around 100 papers and chapters in crime science, her research interests focus on the use of quantitative methods in crime analysis and crime prevention. Her work to date has been funded by grants from the Home Office, the US Department of Justice the Police, the Department for Education and Skills, and UK research councils such as the ESRC and AHRC and she has advised on numerous high-profile projects for the likes of the Home Office and the US Office of the Assistant Attorney. As one of the key speakers at the Festival’s flagship ‘Back the Future’ talk, we caught up with her to find out more about her journey into this exciting field:

I became involved in the field of crime science through an accidental, but fortuitous happening. After completing my higher education in natural science and psychology, I applied for a job as a Research Assistant for a project that happened to be on crime, and the rest is history. I loved the topic and felt that if I stayed in the field I could make a useful contribution.

People assume that we spend most of our time profiling and examining the motivations of individual offenders, but crime science is a very practical discipline. We want to understand patterns in crime events and bring together evidence based on what we can do to reduce crime and aid detection in practice.

I am currently interested in the opportunities that arise from new forms of data. For example, online social networks and crowdsourcing projects generate data that enable us to track how people’s feelings and perceptions about safety change depending on time and place in a way that wasn’t possible before. There is also the challenge of ‘big data’ and how we can best use some of the large data sets generated by technologies such as GPS location capture; Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and police body worn video.

The biggest challenge to my field is working out better ways of horizon scanning for crime problems that are likely to get more significant as society changes and technology advances further. In my opinion, the best way to manage crime problems is to get as far upstream of them as possible and move towards preventing them occurring in the first place. To do this effectively we need to have a good understanding of where, when and how crimes will manifest themselves and then test alternative approaches to deterring them.

The field has changed rather substantially throughout my career. My forerunners focused on developing theories about the role of everyday opportunity as a cause of crime and on establishing the idea of using situation-specific approaches to control problems. As better data became available, my own generation began to undertake empirical research exploring crime clusters and associated correlates and predictors. The future is in making the venture even more multi-disciplinary and using and adapting ideas and skills from many other disciplines.

My advice to students who might be attracted to a career in this area is to understand the value of a broader view. While good quantitative and technical skills, or interesting disciplinary perspectives are of great value, it is no use having these in such an applied field without an understanding of how, why and when they might be useful. To make real progress, we need to be answering the most socially relevant questions and it takes a different skill to articulate these.

I can’t really narrow down my greatest moments at UCL to just one experience. The best moments for me include those where I have an inspired research idea; when, after months of research, pressing a button finally generates much awaited results; or, perhaps most poignantly, seeing a PhD student catching the curiosity bug before my eyes.

Professor Bowers will be speaking on Saturday 10 June at Back the Future, the flagship lecture of UCL’s It’s All Academic Festival. For more details and information on how to book, please visit: www.ucl.ac.uk/campaign/festival.