Reliable and valid forensic science analytic techniques are critical to a credible, fair, and evidence-based criminal justice system. There is widespread agreement that the scientific foundation of some currently available forensic science methods needs strengthening and that additional, more efficient techniques are urgently needed. These needs can only be met through sustained research programs explicitly designed to ensure and improve the reliability and validity of current methods and to foster the development and use of new and better techniques. This task is challenging, due to the broad nature of the field. Issues in forensic science range from crime scene investigations to analysis of a variety of types of evidence. Moreover, forensic science practice is informed by many different disciplines, including biology, chemistry, statistics, and others. Given the challenges facing forensic science laboratories in terms of resources, caseloads, and variations in configuration among state and local jurisdictions, there is an urgent need for leadership at the national level to frame and sustain an extensive program of high-quality, strategically focused forensic science research designed to improve the forensic tools available to the criminal justice system.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is recognized as the department’s research arm for issues of crime and justice. This agency supports a number of research and development programs aimed at advancing knowledge on crime, crime control, and the administration of justice and improving practices within the criminal justice system. NIJ asked the National Research Council to appoint a committee to examine its recent efforts to strengthen its role as a science agency and to
advance forensic science research. The committee was also asked to recommend steps that would improve its research program (see the committee’s Statement of Task in Box S-1).
The committee was asked to review progress made by NIJ since the release of two prior National Research Council reports: the 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, and the 2010 report, Strengthening the National Institute of Justice. The first report raised concerns about the location of a research institute for forensic science within DOJ. The latter report made recommendations for improving the scientific independence and transparency of NIJ’s research program while remaining within DOJ. The debate still continues on the appropriate location for a research institute for forensic science in the United States, and this committee did not take a position on that issue because of the narrowness of its charge.
This report focuses on NIJ’s existing research role in forensic science and identifies ways to strengthen the agency as a leader in both developing and guiding short- and long-term research agendas for forensic science in the United States. The committee believes recent improvements made by NIJ have strengthened its functioning as a science agency; however, it needs to do more. Building upon NIJ’s recent progress, this report includes a set of recommendations intended to improve NIJ’s capacity to support
An ad hoc committee will conduct a study and prepare a report that will review the progress made by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to advance forensic science research since the 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, and the 2010 report, Strengthening the National Institute of Justice. Specifically, this study will focus on (1) the role of the agency to lead critical areas of forensic science research and (2) efforts to strengthen NIJ’s role as an independent scientific entity. The review will examine the ways in which NIJ develops its forensic science research priorities and communicates those priorities as well as its findings to the scientific and forensic practitioner communities in order to determine the impact of NIJ forensic science research programs and how that impact can be enhanced. The committee will assess NIJ’s progress to date and make recommendations for areas where continued improvement is needed. The committee also will consider budgetary options and funding directives in its assessment of NIJ’s forensic science portfolio.
high-quality forensic science research. If these recommendations are fully implemented, the committee believes the forensic science research and development program at NIJ will improve; however, these recommendations are not a panacea for all systemic problems facing forensic science, some are policy dependent and simply beyond the scope of NIJ’s research and development mission.
FORENSIC SCIENCE RESEARCH IN THE UNITED STATES
Forensic science research is conducted in public laboratories, private industry laboratories, and academia. Like NIJ, a number of federal agencies, including but not limited to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory, and the Defense Forensic Science Center (DFSC), conduct and support forensic science research.
Among this group of federal players working to strengthen forensic science research, NIJ has a unique and critical role. The agency’s mission is to support research that will serve the nation’s forensic science field, particularly at the state and local levels, whereas other federal agencies have strategic objectives directed at serving their individual missions and only indirectly affecting the broad field of forensic science.
NIJ also has existing ties to both the forensic science research and practice communities. As the federal government’s largest funder of extramural forensic science research, NIJ supports research at state, local, and federal laboratories and research conducted by academics. Close ties to the forensic science practice community continue, as a result of its administration of assistance and capacity-building grants and its support for research conducted within state and local laboratories. These connections enable NIJ to support the transfer of promising evidence-based approaches into practice.
NIJ’S RESEARCH OPERATIONS: PROGRESS SINCE 2009
Given NIJ’s critical role in federal efforts to strengthen forensic science research, the committee assessed the agency’s current research operations and its progress toward that goal since 2009-2010. The committee believes that NIJ has made some very useful changes to its process for soliciting and awarding research grants, thereby improving the agency’s scientific capability. These improvements include
- making its processes to identify the needs of forensic science practitioners more transparent;
- increasing the level of autonomy and independence for its scientific peer-review process;
- obtaining final sign-off authority for its research awards;
- expanding the size of its research and development portfolio across forensic science disciplines;
- expanding outreach and dissemination to the practice and research communities;
- attracting new investigators to forensic science research;
- increasing the number of graduate student fellowships; and
- formalizing partnerships with other federal agencies involved in forensic science research, including NIST, the FBI Laboratory, DFSC, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Taken together, these efforts have (1) restored authority that is appropriate for a science agency and addressed some previous concerns about NIJ’s independence and (2) contributed to the building of a research infrastructure necessary to develop and sustain research that advances forensic science methods.
BLUEPRINT FOR THE FUTURE
NIJ’s scientific capacity has improved since 2009; however, additional improvements are still needed. The committee offers recommendations to NIJ to build upon the agency’s recent progress and substantially improve the amount and quality of forensic science research it supports.
In order to identify the needs of forensic science practitioners, NIJ uses its established Technology Working Groups (TWGs). Gathering input from these practicing forensic scientists is important, especially considering that NIJ’s applied research portfolio is directed toward improving forensic science methods and analytic techniques at crime scenes or in forensic laboratories. However, the current forensic science TWG does not adequately represent the needs of the broad range of forensic science disciplines. In addition, the agency has yet to develop mechanisms for integrating the perspective of researchers into the process for identifying needs and scientific gaps and opportunities. Including researchers in an advisory capacity will enhance NIJ’s ability to prioritize research areas and develop short-term and long-term research agendas.
Currently, the priority issues emphasized in the agency’s solicitations appear to be reactive, and it is not clear how the priorities announced by NIJ relate to an overall long-term research agenda for forensic science. For this reason, the committee believes that the development of a strategic plan for forensic science research and development with short-, mid-, and long-term goals and priorities will help NIJ build a portfolio of cumulative knowledge and provide stability for researchers. Such a strategic plan should guide all internal decision making, from the development of solicita-
tions to funding decisions. At a minimum, this plan will need to include a research agenda with foundational research outcomes, technology transfer outcomes, efficiency outcomes, and justice system outcomes. The perspectives of both researchers and practitioners should be integrated into the process of identifying and prioritizing the research needs to be used in developing such a strategic plan for NIJ’s forensic science research and development program.
Recommendation 4-1: The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) should take immediate steps to develop a formal and comprehensive strategic plan for its forensic science research and development program. The strategic plan should be based on a thorough understanding of the state of the science, an analysis of NIJ’s past and current research portfolios, and extensive consultation with both the research and practice communities.
Recommendation 4-2: The National Institute of Justice should establish a research advisory board that includes a broad array of scientists, including forensic science researchers and practitioners, in order to better integrate their perspectives into its processes for identifying and prioritizing research needs. The research advisory board should also monitor progress in achieving the strategic plan’s designated goals.
In the last few years, NIJ has taken positive steps to strengthen its ties to the research community. It has expanded outreach and dissemination to the research community and has increased the number of graduate student fellowships it awards. Through its solicitations, NIJ has taken several steps to attract new investigators. These efforts show promise for broadening the field of researchers engaged in forensic science, but further outreach is needed in order to build the research infrastructure and diversify the forensic science research field. For example, NIJ should consider other opportunities to support graduate students and attract proposals from researchers in a broader set of disciplines by building knowledge within the agency of emerging technologies in related fields that may have forensic uses.
In addition to efforts to broaden the forensic science research community and support the next generation of forensic science researchers, NIJ should incorporate research and evaluation into all of its forensic science activities. NIJ administers grant programs to reduce casework backlogs and fund improvements in state and local forensic laboratories. Given its science mission, it could require these and other assistance grants to include a research component with the potential to bring marked increases in casework processing and accuracy and/or an evaluation component that will help provide an evidence base that could be used to improve the
outcomes of future efforts. Especially in light of shrinking resources and increased demand for services, NIJ needs the ability to invest in innovative scientific research that promises to enhance laboratory capability by orders of magnitude to address growing demand through either new technologies or methods. This requirement would better integrate NIJ’s research and development program with its assistance efforts.
Recommendation 4-3: The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) should increase efforts to expand forensic science research by recruiting researchers from the broader scientific community whose work may have a nexus with forensic science. At a minimum, NIJ should promote greater cross-field collaboration, conduct more outreach to research communities in adjacent disciplines that do not currently focus on forensic science applications, and increase the institutional knowledge within NIJ of relevant technology developments in other fields that might have forensic uses.
Recommendation 4-4: In keeping with its scientific mission, all of the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ’s) forensic science funding, including capacity-building investments such as backlog reduction, should include a research component and/or an evaluation component. NIJ should create a clear translation pipeline from research to implementation for promising approaches, and future capacity-building funding should be tied to the use of evidence-based practices.
The committee believes that the current level of federal funding available to support NIJ’s program of forensic science research and development is sorely inadequate to the task. Congressional appropriations to support NIJ’s research programs have declined since the early to mid-2000s and remain insufficient, especially in light of the growing challenges facing the forensic science community. In addition, the programmatic staffing for forensic science research has not changed commensurate with the increasing scope of responsibilities for NIJ in this area.
With limited base funding, NIJ funds research and development from the appropriations for DNA backlog reduction programs and other assistance programs. These carved-out funds are essentially supporting NIJ’s current forensic science portfolio, but there are pressures to limit the amount used for research from these programs. In the past 3 years, funding for these assistance programs has declined; therefore, funds available for research have also been reduced. In addition, some of NIJ’s formalized federal partnerships, although commendable, as currently executed depend solely on the agency for funding and further diminish the agency’s limited resources for funding its own projects.
The varying and unpredictable funding levels from year to year are counterproductive to the agency’s goals and contribute to the difficulty of establishing a long-term research agenda for forensic science. Funding stability, at least at some core level, as well as staffing commensurate with increasing responsibilities for forensic science research, would improve NIJ’s ability to establish appropriate short- and long-term research agendas for forensic science.
Recommendation 4-5: Federal policy makers should ensure the ability of the National Institute of Justice to advance forensic science research and development through dedicated, adequate, and stable appropriations coupled with funding flexibility to help support both short- and long-term research strategies. In order to ensure funding stability from year to year, policy makers should designate a dedicated funding stream for research and development that is of sufficient magnitude to address the challenges facing forensic science.
To build support for a robust research budget, the impact of NIJ’s forensic science research and development program must be more effectively communicated to researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and the public. In addition to employing a science writer and using multiple media venues to alert audiences to available research findings, NIJ supports the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence in its role to provide resources and workshops to practitioners and to maintain a connection between NIJ’s research portfolio and the practice of forensic science. However, the center’s efforts are not reflected in a strategic research plan or a strategic communication’s plan.
NIJ should develop a strategic communication plan that proactively promotes the value of the agency’s investment in research and development in forensic science to policy makers and the public by stressing the importance of forensic science research to the criminal justice system and by estimating future savings from the creation and adoption of innovative tools and techniques. Implementation of a well-thought-out communications plan will help the agency achieve its goal of advancing forensic science by encouraging the uptake of innovative evidence-based practices by practitioners and more actively recruiting researchers from related disciplines.
Recommendation 4-6: In concert with the development of a strategic plan, the National Institute of Justice should develop and implement a strategic communication plan that directs its messages in ways appropriate to its various constituencies. This plan should include valuable in-person activities, such as hosting national conferences and workshops.
Recommendation 4-7: As part of its strategic plan, the National Institute of Justice should support transfer of technologies developed in its research and development portfolio to end users.
NIJ currently does not have adequate mechanisms to measure and communicate the impact of its forensic science research and development program. It has recently made strides in this area: NIJ now routinely tracks publications and presentations, dissemination activities, and technology-transition activities. However, the mere counting of these activities only measures the productivity of its funded researchers and does not assess the impact of research output on the practice of forensic science. NIJ should develop a set of metrics that go beyond primarily tracking outputs to a process that also measures the outcomes resulting from the activities it supports (e.g., increased accuracy of particular forensic methods, the use of NIJ-sponsored research to set legal precedent, and the implementation of new methods and techniques in laboratories). These metrics, measuring both outputs and outcomes, should be used to continuously evaluate NIJ’s impact.
Recommendation 4-8: The National Institute of Justice should develop an appropriate set of procedures and metrics to measure outcomes regularly and evaluate the impact of its forensic science research and capacity-building portfolio.
The need to improve the scientific basis for some forensic disciplines is high: because of the volume of forensic transactions processed annually in the United States, even the smallest of error rates can have great consequences and erode the public’s confidence in a fair and credible criminal justice system. Given NIJ’s mission to serve state and local law enforcement as well as its ties to the forensic science research and practitioner communities, the agency has a unique and critical role to play in efforts to advance forensic science research.
NIJ has made progress in the past 5-6 years toward improving its research operations and expanding efforts to build a research infrastructure in forensic science. Given this progress, it is now better positioned as a science agency. Although these improvements provide a solid foundation, more work is necessary to bolster NIJ’s ability to advance forensic science research. This report offers recommendations to strengthen the role, capacity, and commitment of NIJ to support forensic science research. However, NIJ’s ability to improve forensic science research in the foreseeable future will be constrained without adequate support from federal policy mak-
ers across both the executive and legislative branches. Support from DOJ leadership is particularly essential, given that NIJ’s placement within the department has been perceived as a potential source of conflict of interest (National Research Council, 2009b, pp. 79-80).
Assuming these recommendations are fully implemented and any barriers overcome, this committee believes NIJ has the potential to lead forensic science research across the federal government, a role with clear and striking consequences for the criminal justice system.
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