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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
informing investigations, providing strong evidence, and avoiding errors in important ways. NIJ is the only federal agency that provides direct support to crime laboratories to alleviate the backlog, and those funds are minimal. The forensic science system is underresourced also in the sense that it has only thin ties to an academic research base that could support the forensic science disciplines and fill knowledge gaps. There are many hard-working and conscientious people in the forensic science community, but this under-resourcing inherently limits their ability to do their best work. Additional resources surely will be necessary to create high-quality, self-correcting systems.
However, increasing the staff within existing crime laboratories and medical examiners’ offices is only part of the solution. What also is needed is an upgrading of systems and organizational structures, better training, the widespread adoption of uniform and enforceable best practices, and mandatory certification and accreditation programs. The forensic science community and the medical examiner/coroner system must be upgraded if forensic practitioners are to be expected to serve the goals of justice.
Of the various facets of underresourcing, the committee is most concerned about the knowledge base. Adding more dollars and people to the enterprise might reduce case backlogs, but it will not address fundamental limitations in the capabilities of forensic science disciplines to discern valid information from crime scene evidence. For the most part, it is impossible to discern the magnitude of those limitations, and reasonable people will differ on their significance.
Forensic science research is not well supported, and there is no unified strategy for developing a forensic science research plan across federal agencies. Relative to other areas of science, the forensic disciplines have extremely limited opportunities for research funding. Although the FBI and NIJ have supported some research in forensic science, the level of support has been well short of what is necessary for the forensic science community to establish strong links with a broad base of research universities. Moreover, funding for academic research is limited and requires law enforcement collaboration, which can inhibit the pursuit of more fundamental scientific questions essential to establishing the foundation of forensic science. The broader research community generally is not engaged in conducting research relevant to advancing the forensic science disciplines.
The forensic science enterprise also is hindered by its extreme disaggregation—marked by multiple types of practitioners with different levels of education and training and different professional cultures and standards for performance and a reliance on apprentice-type training and a guild-like structure of disciplines, which work against the goal of a single forensic science profession. Many forensic scientists are given scant opportunity for professional activities, such as attending conferences or