The forensic science field is composed of public and private entities and organizations that range from those that conduct crime scene investigations and medical examinations to state and local forensic laboratories and federal agencies that provide forensic services and training and support research. Scientific research, development, and evaluation of new and existing tools and procedures are indispensable toward advancing forensic science services and ensuring the administration of justice. As such, academic researchers who conduct basic and applied forensic science research are considered an important part of the field.1 This chapter outlines the forensic science disciplines within the field of forensic science and the nature of services in the practice of forensic science. It considers the need for forensic science research and examines the sources for such research at the state, local, and federal levels. The chapter concludes with the committee’s assessment of the role of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the landscape of forensic science research.
1In referring to researchers, the committee includes those from a wide range of fields (e.g., chemistry, physics, statistics) engaged in basic research and applied research. Basic researchers typically conduct scientific studies aimed at developing new knowledge, technologies, and information or at validating existing methods from other disciplines for forensic purposes. Forensic science researchers engaged in applied research use existing scientific knowledge to develop new methods and techniques for forensic analysis. Forensic science practitioners use forensic techniques to conduct analyses and interpret evidence.
The nature of the work within the forensic science field is broad, and the level of scientific development and evaluation varies substantially among the disciplines (National Research Council, 2009b, p. 182). According to Forensic Science: Path Forward,
Forensic science encompasses a broad range of disciplines, each with its own distinct practices. The forensic science disciplines exhibit wide variability with regard to techniques, methodologies, reliability, level of error, research, general acceptability, and published material. Some of the disciplines are laboratory based (e.g., nuclear and mitochondrial DNA analysis, toxicology, and drug analysis); others are based on expert interpretation of observed patterns (e.g., fingerprints, writing samples, toolmarks, bite marks). Some activities require the skills and analytical expertise of individuals trained as scientists (e.g., chemists or biologists); other activities are conducted by scientists as well as by individuals trained in law enforcement (e.g., crime scene investigators, blood spatter analysts, crime reconstruction specialists), medicine (e.g., forensic pathologists), or laboratory methods (e.g., technologists).
(National Research Council, 2009b, p. 38)
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 (4.1 million transactions in 2009; see discussion below), even the smallest of error rates can have great consequences and erode the public’s confidence in a fair and effective criminal justice system.
The committee found NIJ’s listing of forensic science disciplines used by the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS) in its 2015 general forensic science research and development (R&D) solicitation to be useful (National Institute of Justice, 2015b). Box 2-1 includes these disciplines and adds digital evidence, a discipline for which NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology makes awards.
Forensic science practice is broadly defined as using scientific techniques to analyze and interpret evidence for use in legal proceedings. Almost all types of forensic analyses, regardless of specific discipline, address one or more of the following purposes: identification (e.g., determining whether a white powder is cocaine), determination of common origin (e.g., DNA profiles link a blood stain to a suspect), or reconstruction of events (e.g., analyzing physical evidence to determine the origins of a fire).
In general, forensic science practice in the United States takes place in law enforcement identification units, public forensic laboratories (state,
- Controlled substances
- Digital evidence
- DNA and forensic biology
- Fire debris analysis and arson scene investigations
- Firearms and toolmark identification
- Forensic anthropology and odontology*
- Forensic crime scene analysis
- Forensic toxicology
- Latent print
- Medicolegal death investigations, including forensic pathology
- Questioned documents
- Shoeprint/tire tread examination
- Trace evidence
*Forensic anthropology and forensic odontology are more commonly referred to as separate disciplines; see National Institute of Standards and Technology (2015b).
SOURCE: National Institute of Justice (2011b, 2015b).
local, and federal), medical examiner and coroner offices, and academic institutions as part of departments or standalone service centers. (Public forensic laboratories are discussed in further detail below.) In addition, some forensic services are performed at private for-profit laboratories; however, the number of these entities is small (National Research Council, 2009b, p. 58).
The 411 public forensic laboratories in the United States differ by jurisdiction—municipal, county, state, and federal. According to the 2009 Census of Publicly Funded Forensic Crime Laboratories (CPFFCL) conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 373 municipal, county, and state laboratories and 38 federal laboratories in the United States.2 These laboratories performed an average of five different forensic services,
2Law enforcement identification units, privately operated facilities, and most medical examiners/coroners offices were not included in the CPFFCL. Of the 373 municipal, county, and state laboratories, 362 responded to the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. The 38 federal laboratories identified by the CPFFCL serve agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Department of Defense; Department of Homeland Security; Drug Enforcement Agency; Environmental Protection Agency; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Fish and Wildlife Service; and United States Postal Service.
the most common being controlled substance analysis, latent print examination, forensic biology, crime scene response, and trace evidence analysis.
More than half of the estimated 4.1 million requests for forensic services received by publicly funded crime laboratories in 2009 were submitted to state laboratories (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012). Although requests for services have increased, funding for laboratories has not kept pace with the demand (National Research Council, 2009b, p. 58). Budgetary support for the laboratories comes from their jurisdictions (and/or the agency with oversight of the laboratory), but 69 percent of laboratories in 2009 reported receiving some additional funding from grants (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012). The majority of those grants are administered by NIJ as part of its laboratory capacity-building and assistance-funding streams.
Because of the increased demand for services and limited resources, case backlogs are a persistent problem that reduces faith and confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to be fair. By year-end 2009, according to the CPFFCL, the 411 publicly funded laboratories had a backlog of about 1.2 million requests (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012). Box 2-2 discusses the forensic services backlogs in greater detail.
Validity, reliability, and also credibility in the practice of forensic science are critically dependent on a strong research base. Forensic science research is both basic and applied in character, and it occurs in public laboratories, private industry laboratories, and academia; almost all of it is funded by the federal government (discussed further below).
Table 2-1 shows the small percentage of publicly funded forensic crime laboratories with resources dedicated specifically for research, for which the primary funding source is NIJ (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012).3,4 In remarks to the committee, representatives from state and local public laboratories expressed their desire to perform more research but stated that due to casework load and resource constraints (time, staff, budget), they were unable to do so.5
3The 2009 CPFFCL found that 7 percent of publicly funded laboratories devoted staff time, supplies, or other resources to forensic science research, including experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, the revision of accepted theories, and practical application of such new or revised theories or technologies (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012, p. 8).
4NIJ is believed to be the only federal entity that has a grant program dedicated specifically to research and development for state and local forensic science laboratories. See also Gerry LaPorte, OIFS, NIJ, correspondence with the committee, May 13, 2015.
5Panel presentation on Perspectives of Forensic Labs, by Peter Stout, Houston Forensic Science Center, and Kristine Olsson, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, May 7, 2015.
In general, forensic requests that have been submitted to laboratories but are not examined and reported to the submitting agency within 30 days are considered “backlogged” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012). Ultimately, these backlogs are a symptom of insufficient capacity to meet demand. Though progress has been made in reducing the backlog for certain services in recent years, the problem persists and in some cases is growing (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012, p. 5).
In order to reduce backlogs, a laboratory can increase capacity by increasing the human and/or technological resources of current systems (e.g., more hires and more equipment), improving the efficiency of current procedures, or adopting more efficient new technologies. Historically, efforts to reduce casework backlogs and fund improvements in forensic laboratories have been used to directly support the purchase of equipment, training, and additional staffing (Nelson, 2010). Laboratories may also restrict the types and quantities of evidence that they will analyze in order to address backlogs; while this may improve turnaround times, it presents other justice issues.
Given the large increase in the number of requests for services, innovative solutions are needed to address not only capacity but also efficiency and effectiveness in case processing. Investments in forensic science research are necessary to develop these scientific innovations to revolutionize precision and capacity. For example, a current National Institute of Justice–funded research project is working to develop a camera with imaging capabilities to detect and identify fingerprints, body fluids, stains, and other residues at crime scenes, which if realized and widely adopted, could reduce the time crime laboratory personnel spend examining evidence for trace amounts of blood or other biological material (National Institute of Justice, 2015a).
NIJ is the largest external research funder, supporting research at state and local laboratories and research conducted by academics. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also provide funding for forensic science research; the majority of the research funds dispersed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory and the Defense Forensic Science Center (DFSC) are for R&D targeted to fulfilling their agency’s mission. These agencies,
By Type of Jurisdiction
By Number of Full-Time Employees
|Fewer than 10||8%||2%|
|10 to 24||6||4|
|25 to 49||13||2|
|50 to 99||32||20|
|100 or more||21||43|
NOTE: Data on research were reported by 98% of 397 laboratories responding to the 2009 census and 89% of the 306 laboratories responding to the 2002 census. Employee data were reported by 99% of the laboratories responding to the 2009 census and 89% of the laboratories responding to the 2002 census. In the 2005 census, data were not collected on research.
SOURCE: Bureau of Justice Statistics (2012, p. 8).
as some of the major federal supporters of forensic science research, are described in further detail below.6
NIJ is the federal agency charged with bringing the power of scientific research to bear on the administration of a fair and effective criminal justice system. This mission guides the agency to support research that will serve the nation’s forensic science field, particularly at the state and local levels.
As the principal federal agency that has supported a broad array of primarily applied forensic science research since the 1970s, NIJ has an extensive relationship with the forensic science research community. NIJ also has close ties to the practice community through its efforts to gather op-
6A number of other federal agencies support or conduct forensic science research on a mission-specific basis, including the Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Interior, Department of Treasury, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Office of the Federal Public Defender, the United States Postal Inspection Service, and the Smithsonian Institution.
erational needs and to support the transfer of promising evidence-based approaches into practice (see Strengthening NIJ and discussion in Chapter 3). In addition, laboratory capacity and assistance funding for most public laboratories is administered through NIJ, and funding for R&D projects within the public laboratories is largely distributed by NIJ. Even the federal laboratories, such as the FBI Laboratory and the DFSC, receive funding from NIJ to conduct forensic science R&D (see discussion below).
NIJ funds a diverse portfolio of extramural forensic science R&D from forensic DNA to forensic pathology and crime scene investigation. It funds both basic and applied research, with a heavy focus on applied research. During fiscal 2014, it dedicated $23 million to funding forensic science R&D. Since 2009, NIJ has funded 269 research projects ($116 million) and distributed nearly $11 million to its federal partners for forensic science R&D (National Institute of Justice, 2015a, p. 8). NIJ’s forensic science R&D program will be discussed in further detail in Chapter 3.
NSF is the largest funder of basic scientific research in the United States. Its core strategic objective is to invest in basic research to ensure significant continuing advances across science, engineering, and education (National Science Foundation, 2014). NSF makes awards through its 7 research directorates and 32 divisions. There is no division dedicated to forensic science, but an NSF representative reported to the committee that interest in forensic science spans all seven directorates.7 The majority of NSF’s recent attention to forensic science R&D has come through a 2013 “dear colleague” letter soliciting research that would lead to “breakthroughs in fundamental and basic research and education” in the forensic sciences. In 2014, NSF initiated, with NIJ, an Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers Program to advance cooperation in forensic science R&D and education.8
NSF recently began systematically coding its grants for forensic relevance; a search of NSF’s awards database conducted to identify forensic-coded grants revealed that from 2013 to mid-2015 it has funded 25 proposals, totaling $4.38 million.9 For a lengthier assessment of NSF’s support for forensic science research, a search was conducted of NSF’s awards
7Presentation on NSF and NIJ—A Partnership to Advance the Fundamental Science Underlying Forensics, by Mark Weiss, NSF (retired), and Kelsey Cook, NSF, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, May 7, 2015.
8The Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers Program also receives support from the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and NIST. As of May 2015, no awards had been made.
9The search was conducted in May 2015 and includes grants that were coded for forensic relevance (coding began in 2013).
database using natural language search tools to identify “forensic” awards. Using this method, NSF reports that from 2004 to mid-2015, it granted 209 “forensic-related” awards, amounting to $147 million invested in R&D.10 NSF’s funding of forensic science research is similar to NIJ in that it is awarded to external entities; however, in accordance with its mission, NSF’s forensic science investment is in basic research whereas NIJ focuses primarily on applied research, so it complements rather than duplicates NIJ’s portfolio of funded research.
NIST, in the U.S. Department of Commerce, has a long history of working in support of forensic science. Much of that work has been dedicated to developing and validating standards for forensic science products. Currently, NIST is involved in forensics in four ways:
- NIST supports forensic science research conducted within the institute.
- NIST leads the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC; see Box 2-3).
- NIST cochairs the National Commission on Forensic Sciences with the Department of Justice (see Box 2-4).
- NIST supports a Forensic Science Center of Excellence to improve statistical analysis of forensic evidence.11
The mission of NIST’s forensic science program is to strengthen the practice of forensic science through conducting research, facilitating documentary standards development, and producing quality reference standards, among other activities.12 Unlike NIJ, which funds extramural research across the forensic disciplines, much of NIST’s resources are allocated for intramural research. Its special programs office dedicated $6,850,000 to internal forensic science research in fiscal 2015.13 Although much of NIST’s
10These data reflect all NSF grants since 2004 that were identified in the NSF awards database, using natural language search tools, as containing the term “forensic.” The search was conducted in May 2015.
11Presentation on Standards and Practices of Forensic Science from a NIST Perspective, by John Butler, NIST, and Mark Stolorow, NIST, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, April 1, 2015.
12Presentation on Standards and Practices of Forensic Science from a NIST Perspective, by John Butler, NIST, and Mark Stolorow, NIST, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, April 1, 2015.
13Other NIST organizational units receive other agency funds and expend their own base funds for work in forensic science; these expenditures are not included in the special programs office figure cited here.
The OSAC is a joint initiative of the Department of Justice and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The OSAC process was established to provide quality standards and guidelines for the forensic science community. The organization is practice focused, with more than 500 members and 1,200 affiliates who are forensic science practitioners and other experts representing local, state, and federal agencies; academia; and industry. Each member participates in 1 of the 24 subcommittees that are grouped under 5 area committees: biology/DNA, chemistry/instrumental analysis, crime scene/death investigation, digital/multimedia, and physics/pattern. Each area committee and subcommittee is tasked with identifying and developing technically sound, consensus-based documentary standards and guidelines (e.g., terminology, reporting requirements, and conclusion statements). To support the work of these committees and subcommittees, the OSAC has three resource committees: the Human Factors Committee (to provide guidance on systems design and human performance), the Legal Resource Committee (to provide guidance about the legal ramifications of forensic standards and presentation of forensic results to the legal system), and the Quality Infrastructure Committee (to assemble and update a forensic science code of practice). The work of the resource committees and the area committees and subcommittees is overseen by the Forensic Science Standards Board, which approves the developed standards.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) provided $3 million in funding to NIST in fiscal 2014 (as directed by Congress) to support the OSAC process.a However, beyond funding and some initial collaboration to develop the OSAC framework, there are no formal ties between NIJ and the OSAC. According to NIST, there is potential to create ties between the OSAC outcomes and future NIJ efforts. For example, NIJ-funded research at NIST could provide supporting data to validate existing guidelines; any discovered contradictions would trigger redrafting by an OSAC committee or subcommittee. In addition, standards development by entities within the OSAC can highlight research needs that NIJ could use to set research priorities.b
aPresentation on Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences Budget, by Gerry LaPorte, OIFS, NIJ, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, April 1, 2015.
bPresentation on Standards and Practices of Forensic Science from a NIST Perspective, by John Butler, NIST, and Mark Stolorow, NIST, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, April 1, 2015.
The National Commission on Forensic Science was established in 2013 by the Department of Justice in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and is focused on federal policies surrounding the practice of forensic science. The commission meets quarterly and aims to promote scientific validity, reduce fragmentation, and improve coordination of federal activities guiding forensic science policy. It comprises 31 voting members and 8 ex officio members, including federal, state, and local forensic science service providers; research scientists and academics; law enforcement officials; prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges; and other stakeholders. The commission is cochaired by the Deputy Attorney General and the Director of NIST.
To fulfill its objectives, the commission is tasked with the following duties:
- To recommend priorities for standards development to the Attorney General.
- To review and recommend that the Attorney General endorse guidance identified or developed by subject matter experts.
- To develop proposed guidance concerning the intersection of forensic science and the courtroom.
- To develop policy recommendations, including a uniform code of professional responsibility and minimum requirements for training, accreditation, and/or certification.
- To consider the recommendations of the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Forensic Science.
- To identify and assess the current and future needs of forensic science to strengthen its disciplines and meet growing demands.
(U.S. Department of Justice, 2013).
In fiscal 2014, NIJ provided approximately $1 million for the commission’s operating expenses. The director of NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences is an ex officio member of the commission.a
aPresentation on Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences Budget, by Gerry LaPorte, OIFS, NIJ, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, April 1, 2015.
resources support intramural research, it recently awarded a 5-year, $20 million grant for the establishment of a center of excellence charged with building a statistically sound and scientifically solid foundation for pattern evidence and digital evidence (National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2015a).
The FBI Laboratory spent $10.9 million in fiscal 2014 on forensic science R&D.14 The majority of this intramural research is carried out by its Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit, which “provides technical leadership and advancement of forensic sciences for the FBI—as well as for federal, state, local, and international agencies—through applied R&D.”15 Although the FBI’s research may result in advances that can be used across the forensic science community, its research funding is primarily dedicated to supporting FBI casework and the directives of its units.
Like the FBI Laboratory, the DFSC in the Department of Defense (DOD) performs forensic R&D that aligns with its internal research priorities, balancing scientific opportunity with potential impact for the military. Its mission is to provide forensic support to DOD entities and to provide “specialized” forensic training and research.16 In fiscal 2015, the DFSC allocated $328,000 to internal forensic R&D and $10.8 million to external projects. Much of the nearly $11 million for external projects is currently focused on sexual assault research due to the military’s current interest in this area.17 Like research conducted by the FBI Laboratory, DSFC research will likely result indirectly in advances of use to the entire forensic science community, but its research funding is primarily dedicated to supporting DOD.
14This includes grants from NIST ($700,000) and the Department of Homeland Security ($4.7 million). This figure does not include a multiyear grant ($4.8 million) from NIJ for research and analysis on sexual assault kits.
15Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research; see http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/scientific-analysis/counterterrorism-forensic-science-research [June 2015].
17According to the DFSC, the amount listed for internal projects represents funds leveraged from non-DFSC sources to support research associates, supplies, etc. Presentation on Defense Forensic Science Center: Federal Forensic Sector Panel, by Rick Tontarski, DFSC, to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, May 7, 2015.
An effective criminal justice system requires a broad range of valid and reliable forensic techniques and tools developed from a strong base of scientific evidence, maintained and advanced by sound and stable programs of basic and applied research. Given the challenges facing forensic science practice (see Chapter 1, this volume; National Research Council, 2009b) and the limited ability to conduct research at state and local levels, there is an urgent need for federal leadership and support to sustain an extensive program of high-quality, strategically focused forensic science research. As pointed out in Forensic Science: Path Forward, although there are multiple agencies that support this kind of research, there is relatively little coordination and leadership among them. This committee spoke to a number of stakeholders who emphasized that this lack of leadership and overall coordination is a continuing problem.18 It is outside the purview of this committee to assign such a responsibility to any agency, but it is the committee’s view that this problem of leadership needs to be solved. The National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Forensic Science appears to be a start toward providing coordination, but it has not yet clearly asserted that role.
NIJ has a unique and critical role in efforts to strengthen forensic science research because its mission guides the agency 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 that serve the broad forensic science field only indirectly and occasionally. NIJ is the federal government’s largest funder of extramural forensic science research, and as such has deep ties to the forensic science research community. It also has close ties to the forensic science practice community, which enables it to support the transfer of promising evidence-based approaches into practice. In addition, other federal agencies that conduct forensic science research have specialized foci or other priorities beyond research and development. For example, NSF, like NIJ, makes grants to external entities for forensic science research, but its awards are limited to basic, not applied, research. Further, NSF has no dedicated forensic science program, unlike NIJ, and much of its work to support the forensic science field is conducted in conjunction with NIJ.
NIJ’s mission to support forensic science research in the service of state and local law enforcement, its broad forensic portfolio, and its ability to engage forensic science researchers and practitioners give it a unique and critical role to play in federal efforts to strengthen forensic science. As will
18See, for example, presentations by the DFSC, FBI, and NSF (“Federal Forensic Sector” panel) to the Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice, May 7, 2015.
be discussed in Chapter 3, NIJ has made a number of improvements to its research program since 2009. If additional improvements are made, such as those recommended in Chapter 4, the agency will be able to more effectively support forensic science research, a role with clear and striking consequences for the criminal justice system.
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