Forensic science is the application of science-based techniques and technologies to the identification and quantification of criminal justice evidence. Reliable and valid forensic science analytic techniques are critical to a credible and fair criminal justice system. The state of forensic science in the United States, its infrastructure and delivery, have been the focus of increasing attention by Congress, the courts, and the media, and they have been previously studied in depth in earlier National Research Council (NRC) reports (National Research Council, 2004, 2008a, 2009b; National Research Council and Federal Judicial Center, 2011).
Concerns have been raised repeatedly about the ability of the criminal justice system to collect and analyze evidence efficiently and to be fair in its verdicts. Although significant progress has been made in some forensic science disciplines, the forensic science community still faces many challenges. To address some of these challenges, an extensive program of high-quality, strategically focused forensic science research is vital to improving the quality, validity, reliability, and breadth of forensic tools available to the criminal justice system. Federal leadership, particularly in regard to research and the scientific validation of forensic science methods, is needed to help meet the pressing issues facing state and local jurisdictions.
Many federal agencies support and engage in research that could benefit the forensic science disciplines. However, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently the only federal agency specifically charged with advancing scientific research, development, and evaluation on crime and crime control and the administration of justice and public safety. Its research and development portfolio covers
a broad set of areas designed to address present challenges of the criminal justice field, including advancing DNA technologies, pattern comparison, and other forensic science methods.
NIJ asked the NRC to appoint an ad hoc committee to provide an independent review of the progress the agency has made in improving its research operations in regard to its forensic science research and development program. In response, the NRC established the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice to assess NIJ progress and to make recommendations to improve NIJ’s forensic science research program.
The charge to the committee is as follows:
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.
In undertaking the charge, the committee set about gathering information from NIJ and a number of NIJ’s federal and research partners (see Appendix A for a full list of speakers at the committee’s three information-gathering meetings) in order to examine how NIJ carries out its research mission in the area of forensic science. The committee reviewed how research priorities are developed, communicated, and implemented; how young and future scholars are supported; and how research findings are disseminated to the academic community and other stakeholders. In discussions with the committee, NIJ noted it has worked toward addressing many of the recommendations in the NRC report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (National Research Council,
2009b)1 but has particularly focused on three recommendations that relate to its research mission (see Recommendations 3, 5, and 6 in Appendix B). Efforts to improve NIJ’s stature as a science agency are occurring at a time when there is a weakening of confidence in the reliability and validity of forensic science. A stronger research effort and knowledge base would do much to improve confidence but cannot address all the challenges facing forensic science. Other organizations and working groups will also need to take the lead on issues of policy, standards, or training.
The committee considered whether NIJ has indeed made progress from 2009 to the present in strengthening its role as an independent scientific entity in order to advance forensic science research. The committee agreed, after discussion, that the quality of NIJ’s operations and procedures for building and managing its forensic science research portfolio is critical to the overall quality of its research portfolio. The committee examined NIJ’s ability to lead critical areas of forensic science research by studying its current research operations and how they have changed since 2009. A prior NRC report Strengthening the National Institute of Justice provides descriptions of NIJ’s earlier operations (National Research Council, 2010).2Chapter 3 reviews the changes observed by the committee since these two NRC reports.
The committee was asked to provide advice on the work undertaken by NIJ regarding forensic science. Although the review that follows responds to that specific charge, the committee was also mindful of the broader concerns that have received much public attention regarding the state of forensic science as portrayed in Forensic Science: Path Forward.
The committee accepts the fundamental notion that any scientific research organization must be independent, meaning that it is able to carry out proposal reviews, make funding decisions, and report research findings independently of any political or policy interference in order to guarantee the objectivity of scientific inquiry. Protecting research findings from even the appearance of undue influence is necessary to ensure that the pressing forensic science challenges facing the country are identified, studied, and met. Forensic Science: Path Forward raised the question about the location of a research institute for forensic science within DOJ, citing concerns about “the potential for conflicts of interest between the needs of law enforcement and the broader needs of forensic science . . .” (National Research Council, 2009b, p. 17). Strengthening NIJ argued that support of forensic science research was appropriate to NIJ’s mission and that, if
1Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward hereafter will be referred to as Forensic Science: Path Forward.
2Strengthening the National Institute of Justice hereafter will be referred to as Strengthening NIJ.
afforded increased independence and transparency, NIJ could remain within DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs (National Research Council, 2010, p. 2). This committee considers the question of the optimal organizational location for NIJ outside the scope of our work and has focused on identifying ways to continue to improve the forensic science research program at NIJ regardless of where it is placed within the government structure.
As context for the committee’s review of NIJ’s support for forensic science research, the committee considered the overall array of federal support for this kind of work. The committee found much to admire but also saw missed opportunities. In this report, the committee acknowledges NIJ’s progress since 2009 in bolstering its procedures for soliciting and communicating the results of forensic science research, but it also emphasizes actions needed to develop and sustain a stronger forensic science research agenda that will serve the nation.
Disparities exist among forensic science methods and technologies in terms of their accuracy and reliability, error rates, research foundation, and general acceptability. In addition, variations in policies and procedures, the availability of resources, and access to training have resulted in large differences among existing forensic science services at the federal, state, and local levels (National Research Council, 2009b; Gabel, 2014). Forensic Science: Path Forward documented the lack of standards for the field, the absence of rigorous practitioner and laboratory accreditation programs, and problems with the interpretation of forensic evidence. That report also articulated the need for adopting and implementing an aggressive, long-term research agenda to strengthen forensic science. Unfortunately, such a research agenda has not yet been developed.
NIJ provides most of the funding for forensic science research, both for research conducted within forensic laboratories (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012) and for research conducted by academic researchers.3 However, Forensic Science: Path Forward (National Research Council, 2009b, p. 78) found that
Forensic science research is [overall] not well supported. . . . Relative to other areas of science, the forensic science disciplines have extremely limited opportunities for research funding. Although the FBI and NIJ have supported some research in the forensic science disciplines, the level of
3The National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory, and Defense Forensic Science Center, among others, also support forensic science research, either internally or through funding of external grantees. (Chapter 2 further discusses support for forensic science research.)
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 and the national research community. Moreover, funding for academic research is limited . . . , which can inhibit the pursuit of more fundamental scientific questions essential to establishing the foundation of forensic science. Finally, the broader research community generally is not engaged in conducting research relevant to advancing the forensic science disciplines.
The status of forensic science research funding has not improved much since Forensic Science: Path Forward. NIJ is still the primary federal source for funding for forensic science research, but the agency’s overall budget is quite limited (see discussion in Chapter 3). Although funding allotted to NIJ’s forensic science research portfolio has increased since 2009, these funds are tied to the appropriations for assistance programs (e.g., DNA backlog program) and the budget for these programs has declined in the past 3 years. As a result, the funding allocated to forensic science research within NIJ has varied substantially from year to year. Stable and adequate funding is essential to building a research field, and that is sorely lacking.
Forensic Science: Path Forward called for significant improvements to the forensic science enterprise and argued for the creation of a new, independent federal agency to advance forensic science into a mature field of multidisciplinary research and practice. That report made 13 recommendations that were to be carried out by the new agency to help support and oversee the forensic science community. Three of those recommendations specifically focused on advancing forensic science research by enhancing the scientific rigor and minimizing bias and human error across the forensic science disciplines (see Recommendations 3, 5, and 6 in Appendix B).
Forensic Science: Path Forward recommended the creation of a new independent federal agency was not followed, and, as stated earlier, this committee did not take a position on that issue.4 One recommended task for this new agency was “developing a strategy to improve forensic science research” and “promoting scholarly, competitive peer-reviewed research and technical development” (National Research Council, 2009b, p. 19). Since the establishment of a new agency does not appear likely in the near future, a goal of this report is to recommend ways that NIJ can improve its forensic science research portfolio.
4Bills have been introduced in the past to advance the recommendations in Forensic Science: Path Forward and change the administration of forensic science research, but none have been enacted. See H.R. 3064 (113th Congress—2013-2014), S. 2022 (113th Congress—2013-2014), H.R. 6106 (112th Congress—2011-2012), and S. 3378 (112th Congress—2011-2012).
NIJ has supported research in forensic science since the 1970s, and it remains the principal federal agency funding research in the field. There is continuing interest, expressed by academics, other federal agencies, and forensic science practitioners, in a leadership role in forensic science research for NIJ (see National Research Council, 2010).5,6,7 However, congressional appropriations to support NIJ’s research programs have declined since 2003-2008, and they remain insufficient to adequately plan and sustain a long-term research agenda for forensic science. NIJ has the authority to move funds for research and development from the DNA backlog reduction programs and other assistance programs, but it does so under infrastructure and budgetary constraints (see discussion in Chapter 3).
Historically, NIJ’s forensic science research has focused on technological solutions with the goals of improving the usefulness, efficiency, and affordability of forensic analyses. For instance, NIJ funded the application of research in biology and medicine to forensic science through its forensic DNA portfolio. With support from the DNA Initiative in the 2004 Justice for All Act8 and other legislative actions, NIJ was able to sustain a long-term research agenda in forensic DNA, which is still thriving (National Research Council, 2010). However, during 2000-2009, NIJ did not have discretion to apply this funding to other forensic techniques; as a result, other areas received far less attention than DNA analysis received (National Research Council, 2009b). Despite some growth in research in the last few years, substantially more effort is needed to provide other forensic techniques with the same scientific basis established for forensic DNA.
In addition to funding research, NIJ carries out a number of activities to support state and local forensic laboratories, including testing and evaluation of forensic techniques, technical assistance in the application of the science, and funds for DNA backlog reduction and crime laboratory improvements. Strengthening NIJ concluded that administration of these activities may have diminished NIJ’s capacity to direct and sustain research in forensic science and other areas (National Research Council, 2010, pp. 102-103).
Strengthening NIJ also identified ways to improve the agency’s mandated mission to advance scientific research, development, and evaluation.
5Comments to the committee by the PI Panel on Impact of Research, April 1, 2015. See Appendix A for a list of speakers.
6Comments to the committee by the Federal Forensic Sector panelists on May 7, 2015. See Appendix A for a list of speakers.
7Comments to the committee by the NIJ Peer Review panelists on April 1, 2015. See Appendix A for a list of speakers.
8Public Law 108-405.
FIGURE 1-1 National Institute of Justice organization chart as of March 2008.
SOURCE: Adapted from National Research Council (2010, Figure 1-2).
The report’s five recommendations aimed to provide the agency with essential tools to support needed research on crime, crime control, and the administration of justice (see Appendix B). NIJ has acknowledged the findings and recommendations in both Forensic Science: Path Forward and Strengthening NIJ; efforts to respond to the recommendations are in motion, and some improvements have been made to NIJ’s research operations (National Institute of Justice, 2010, 2011a; Laub, 2011; Executive Office of the President, 2014a, 2014b).9 Some of these efforts include creating the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences as a parallel program office to the Office of Research and Evaluation and the Office of Science and Technology within NIJ (see Figures 1-1 and 1-2), as well as establishing new partnerships; expanding support to graduate students; and making adjustments to the solicitation, review, and award processes. This committee’s report examines NIJ’s efforts and comments on the progress made (see Chapter 3). In addition, the report looks ahead to what is needed to develop and sustain a strong research program for forensic science.
FIGURE 1-2 National Institute of Justice organization chart as of May 2015.
SOURCE: Adapted from NIJ, see http://www.nij.gov/about/Pages/organization.aspx [June 2015]. Figure last modified July 25, 2012.
The committee held four meetings during the course of the study. The first three were information-gathering meetings during which the committee heard presentations from a variety of stakeholders, including the NIJ director and deputy director, representatives from NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, former NIJ directors, and representatives from partner federal agencies, including the FBI, the Defense Forensic Science Center, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. The committee also heard from forensic scientists, forensic laboratory directors and personnel, and academic researchers who had worked with NIJ as principal investigators or had served on peer-review panels or Technology Working Groups. See Appendix A for more information on speakers and panelists. The last meeting was closed to the public in order for the committee to deliberate on the report and finalize its conclusions and recommendations.
To understand NIJ’s processes and the forensic science program, the committee reviewed multiple sources of information. Although earlier documents were considered occasionally for comparison, the assessment focused primarily on the period from 2009 to 2014. The committee reviewed public documents such as authorizing and appropriations legislation and NIJ’s solicitation and award archive, as well as recent reports and articles on the state of forensic science in the United States, including those released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The commit-
tee received from NIJ responses and documents pertinent to a number of questions regarding its budget; research awards; partnerships; the Forensic Technology Center for Excellence; and its procedures for setting priorities, peer review of grant proposals, and measuring impact (see Appendix C for the committee questions to NIJ). During the committee’s study, NIJ was notably forthcoming and timely with information and responses to questions from the committee.
The committee’s report on its assessment of and guidance for NIJ has been organized into four chapters. Following this introduction, Chapter 2 describes the forensic science community—the landscape of disciplines, forensic science practice, and forensic science research—and assesses NIJ’s role among federal agencies that support forensic science research. Chapter 3 reviews NIJ’s research operations and examines the changes that have been made to the agency’s operations since Forensic Science: Path Forward and Strengthening NIJ and assesses whether efforts in motion are building up an appropriate research infrastructure. The chapter also summarizes the committee’s conclusions. Chapter 4 makes recommendations for improving NIJ’s capacity to develop and sustain a high-quality forensic science research program.
In addition to the main chapters, four appendixes supply background information on this study. Appendix A gives a list of all speakers at the three public meetings. Appendix B documents the formal recommendations from Forensic Science: Path Forward and Strengthening NIJ. Appendix C lists the committee’s questions and requests for information directed to NIJ. Appendix D presents biographical sketches of committee members.
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