NIST Corner: Forensic Science Center of Excellence Takes Shape at NIST
Written by Susan Ballou   

The Centers of Excellence (COE) program was established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to provide multidisciplinary research centers where experts from academia, industry, and NIST can work together on specific high-priority research topics. The agency established its first such center—the Advanced Materials Center of Excellence—in December 2013. The newest addition to the family is the NIST Forensic Science Center of Excellence (FSCOE), announced on May 25, 2015 at the annual training meeting of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE).

Led by Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa), the FSCOE is a partnership that includes Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pa.), the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va.) and the University of California, Irvine (Irvine, Calif.). Its research will focus on improving the statistical foundation for fingerprint, firearm, tool mark, dental, and other pattern evidence analyses; and for computer, video, audio, and other digital evidence analyses.

NIST’s decision to apply the Center of Excellence concept to forensic science was partly due to policy makers who were concerned when officers of the courts requested experts to provide probabilistic assessments of their physical evidence and the requests could not be met. It turned out that applying probabilistic analysis to physical evidence is not common practice for a number of forensic science disciplines. One reason for this is forensic experts who feel that probabilistic data will be misunderstood by the stakeholders (e.g., investigators, lawyers, judges, and juries) who must use the information to make decisions. In some cases, the reluctance to use probabilistic analysis has led to a loss of potentially valuable information. The research goal of the FSCOE is to make probabilistic analysis easier to use, more reliable, and able to yield higher amounts of rigorously derived, science-based data that will strengthen the judicial process.

The path to the FSCOE began on August 19, 2014, when NIST released a call for proposals. By the closing date of December 11, 2014, a number of strong proposals were received. The solicitation identified two specific goals as the core for this COE:

  • First, to improve the statistical foundation for pattern evidence (fingerprints, firearms, tool marks, etc.) and digital evidence (computer, video, and audio analyses).
  • Second, to develop education and training on probabilistic methods for practitioners and other relevant stakeholders.

Understanding the amount of effort and work that would be involved, NIST committed an investment of $20 million over five years.

Iowa State was announced as the principle awardee for the FSCOE and Dr. Alicia Carriquiry, an Iowa State statistician, was named as the technical lead for the center.

The FSCOE will support pattern recognition methods by researching:

  • the application of probabilistic analysis to current and new methods of forensics pattern analysis;
  • the assessment of probabilistic methods through round robins applied to current methods of forensic pattern analysis;
  • and the development and deployment of standard test data that enables the application of probabilistic methods to forensic pattern analysis.

When considering digital evidence, the FSCOE will support digital evidence by:

  • applying probabilistic methods to current digital evidence functions such as deleted file recovery and file carving;
  • assessing methods through testing with standard test data;
  • and developing rich sets of synthetic and real-world standard test data.

These research objectives provide just a glimmer of Iowa State’s plan for the FSCOE. An official kick-off meeting is planned for the fall of 2015 that will move the FSCOE into high gear. It is expected that NIST will be strongly involved in the extended partnerships between Iowa State and their collaborators, employing mechanisms such as staff exchanges, jointly advised graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and senior guest scientists.

About the Author

Susan Ballou is the Manager of the Forensic Sciences Research Program within the Special Programs Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She is also the Federal Program Officer of NIST’s newly established Forensic Science Center of Excellence. She recently was awarded the honorary title of Fellow from the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM International) and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS).

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