NAS Report

NEW REPORT FROM THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
CALLS FOR SIGNIFICANT CHANGES
IN THE UNITED STATES FORENSIC-SCIENCE COMMUNITY

THE REPORT made deep ripples in the national media prior to being officially released. Two weeks before the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, the New York Times published an article by Solomon Moore that stated: “People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprint, fire-arms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.

“The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court.”

This initial presentation of the report started a wave of discussion among those in the law-enforcement, forensic-science, and legal communities—and that wave of discussion did not subside after the official release of the NAS report on February 18.

It will take much more time, however, for agencies and organizations within the forensic-science community to officially respond to the report. The full report, which makes up a 254-page document, covers a vast amount of ground and offers a great many observations and recommendations regarding forensic science and the way the community conducts its business. We at Evidence Technology Magazine expect to hear more in the coming months from groups in the forensic-science community regarding their reactions and planned response to the recommendations laid out by the NAS report.

In the meantime, however, there can be little question that Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward is required reading for everyone involved in forensic science. Here is a brief overview of the history behind this report, its observations, and the recommendations that are offered in the document.

Identifying the Needs
of the Forensic Science Community

In the fall of 2006, a congressionally mandated committee was formed by the National Academy of Sciences. The committee was charged eight primary responsibilities, as laid out in a 2005 Senate Report:

1) Assess the present and future resource needs of the forensic science community, to include State and local crime labs, medical examiners, and coroners;

2) Make recommendations for maximizing the use of forensic technologies and techniques to solve crimes, investigate deaths, and protect the public;

3) Identify potential scientific advances that may assist law enforcement in using forensic technologies and techniques to protect the public;

4) Make recommendations for programs that will increase the number of qualified forensic scientists and medical examiners available to work in public crime laboratories;

5) Disseminate best practices and guidelines concerning the collection and analysis of forensic evidence to help ensure quality and consistency in the use of forensic technologies and techniques to solve crimes, investigate deaths, and protect the public;

6) Examine the role of the forensic community in the homeland security mission;

7) Interoperability of Automated Fingerprint Ident-ification Systems [sic]; and

8) Examine additional issues pertaining to forensic science as determined by the Committee.

The newly formed NAS Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community was made up of forensic-science practitioners, legal practitioners, and a diverse group of scientists. In a series of eight meetings that spanned from January 2007 to November 2008, a parade of experts—from federal officials to academicians, from private consultants to federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials—testified before the committee regarding all areas of forensic science.

The result of those two years of research and deliberation was published in the report released in February 2009.

Primary points laid out by the NAS report

In a press release issued along with the public release of the NAS report, the NAS reported:

“A congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council finds serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calls for major reforms and new research. Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.”

The crux of the report is the “badly fragmented” state of the forensic science community. The report points to the disparities in funding, access to technology, training of personnel, and certification among various federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies.

Additionally, the committee pointed to a lack of scientific research in all forensic disciplines—except DNA analysis. The report states: “With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis…no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual source.”

While the report shows a widespread lack of consistency in procedural standards, training and accreditation, and overall research aiming to investigate and define the science behind many forensic disciplines, the actual tone of the report is not discouraging; instead, it offers solutions to remedy the current situation. The February NAS press release emphasized that fact with this statement: “The report offers no judgment about past convictions or pending cases, and it offers no view as to whether the courts should reassess cases that already have been tried. Rather, the report describes and analyzes the current situation in the forensic science community and makes recommendations for the future.”

A new federal entity to oversee forensic science

The number-one recommendation offered in the NAS report calls for the formation of an “independent federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS).”

The NAS committee identified a lack of consistent leadership in the forensic-science community. It was noted that existing federal agencies were considered by the committee for this leadership role, but—for varying reasons—all were eventually deemed inappropriate as governing entities for the forensic-science community.

Therefore, the new federal entity, NIFS, would be asked to focus on:

1) Establishing best practices for forensic science;
2) Establishing standards for mandatory accreditation and certification;
3) Promoting research;
4) Improving forensic-science research and educational programs;
5) Strategizing to create funding for all types of forensic methodologies;
6) Funding state and local forensic-science agencies, independent research projects, and educational programs;
7) Overseeing education standards and accreditation of forensic-science programs in colleges and universities;
8) Helping to improve the understanding of forensic science within the legal system; and
9) Assessing new technologies in forensic investigation.

The NAS committee is direct in its assertion for the need of such a federal entity. The report states:

“The creation of a new federal entity undoubtedly will pose challenges, not the least of which will be budgetary constraints. The committee is not in a position to estimate how much it will cost to implement the recommendations in this report; this is a matter best left to the expertise of the Congressional Budget Office. What is clear, however, is that Congress must take aggressive action if the worst ills of the forensic science community are to be cured. Political and budgetary concerns should not deter bold, creative, and forward-looking action, because the country cannot afford to suffer the consequences of inaction. It will also take time and patience to implement the recommendations in this report. But this is true with any large, complex, import-ant, and challenging enterprise.”

For More Information

The full text of the NAS report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, can be found online at the website for The National Academies Press. On this same page, you have several options: You can buy the PDF download of the full report; you can purchase a hard copy of the report; or you can download the free executive summary. If you are interested in reading the literature, here is the website: www.nap.edu/catalog/12589.html


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"The NAS Report Update"
March-April 2009 (Volume 7, Number 2)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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