Meeting on the Path Forward
Written by Kristi Mayo   

AT THE FIRST meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, February 3-4, 2014 in Washington, D.C., 37 members officially launched an effort to set forensic science on the “path forward” that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) referred to five years before.

Judge Harry T. Edwards, who served as co-chair of the NAS committee that wrote the 2009 report, gave the opening address at the inaugural commission meeting. His words were cautionary but also optimistic.

“One of our most important [recommendations made by the NAS] was that Congress establish a new, independent federal entity to support and oversee the forensic disciplines, and to implement a fresh agenda to address the problems in the forensic community,” said Edwards. “This commission does not meet all of the criteria we had in mind, but it at least offers a measure of hope. The one thing that I am sure of is that the members of this commission have the talent and wisdom to get the job done.”

Those members are headed by commission co-chairs James M. Cole of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Patrick Gallagher of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Meetings are moderated by DOJ Vice Chair Nelson Santos and NIST Vice Chair John Butler.

Speaking on the phone the day after the inaugural meeting, Butler—who has been involved in the foundational work for the commission since mid-2013, including selection of the 37 members—expressed both exhaustion and exhilaration.

“It was very intense,” he said. “There’s so much energy in the room. Being the person that has to call on who is going to be speaking, it is analogous to holding a tiger by the tail. But everybody wants to see forensic science improve. Having people from the legal community, from the opposite side of the table, that were willing to talk and agree that, Yes, this is how we can go forward to improve things… That was the most exciting part of the meeting for me.”

New Life for SWGs

One key item on the agenda for the commission was a briefing on the formation of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC). With support and oversight from NIST, OSAC will coordinate development of standards and guidelines to improve quality and consistency of work in the forensic science community.

Since the early 1990s, such efforts have been undertaken by Scientific Working Groups (SWGs). Many of these SWGs have been funded by federal organizations, chiefly DOJ. While they have been praised for their efforts in establishing and publishing standards within their areas of forensic science, they have also been criticized as lacking a standardized organizational structure. Likewise, no legal requirements were in place to enforce the standards established by the SWGs.

The concept that became OSAC was born in response to the 2009 NAS Report. Following the inaugural commission meeting, OSAC was formally presented to the forensic science community at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) Annual Scientific Meeting in late February. There, Mark Stolorow, director of the Law Enforcement Standards Office at NIST’s Office of Special Programs, explained how OSAC’s role is to pick up where the SWGs leave off.

“As DOJ ends funding for most of the SWGs, which they announced last summer, what’s next?” asked Stolorow. “One of the central themes of the framework of this new organization is to maintain access for all of the legacy SWG documents, and to assure that the good works that the scientific working groups have accomplished in their histories is not lost, and is not in vain. One of the primary responsibilities of this organization is going to be to carry those good works forward.”

Central to OSAC, Butler explained, will be community involvement. “We will have practitioners involved, academics and researchers… particularly statisticians who can inform and infuse their expertise into the process of developing documentary standards that can be used by the community,” he said. “In terms of what someone at a local crime lab can offer, they can certainly apply to be a part of OSAC. Get involved at that level.”

For the commission, meetings will now proceed on a quarterly basis as the group fulfills its mission to provide recommendations and advice to the DOJ regarding strengthening forensic science, improving quality control, and identifying scientific guidance and protocol for evidence seizure, testing, analysis, and reporting.

For More Information

To learn more about the Organization of Scientific Area Committees, visit:
www.NIST.gov/forensics/osac.cfm


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