NIST Corner: Recent Activities of the National Commission on Forensic Science

In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced a partnership that included formation of the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) and what is now the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC). As a Federal Advisory Committee for DOJ, NCFS involves public meetings, public input on draft documents, and an open website sharing meeting materials and final documents. Video recordings of past meetings are available as well. Co-chaired by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and NIST Director Willie May, the Commission meets four times a year and involves energetic discussions on a variety of issues.

Read this article in its original format in the ETM Digital Edition.

Since its first meeting in February 2014, the Commission has met nine times (as of April 2016) and approved 23 important work products that are seeking to strengthen various aspects of the forensic science ecosystem (see Figure on Page 29). Work products come in the form of “Views” of the Commission or “Recommendations” for the Attorney General to take a specific action. DOJ has committed to respond to recommendations by the second Commission meeting following the document’s approval. Seven NCFS subcommittees have helped create these policy documents: (1) Accreditation & Proficiency Testing, (2) Human Factors, (3) Interim Solutions, (4) Medicolegal Death Investigation, (5) Reporting & Testimony, (6) Scientific Inquiry & Research, and (7) Training on Science & Law.

NCFS is currently composed of 32 voting and 8 ex-officio members who represent a diverse set of stakeholders including federal, state, and local forensic science and forensic medicine service providers; research scientists and academics; law enforcement officials; prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. About 60 additional subject matter experts aid NCFS subcommittee work. As a Federal Advisory Committee, NCFS operates on two-year renewable terms. The second NCFS term ends on April 23, 2017.

The accompanying figure is an attempt to show where the 23 NCFS documents thus far approved impact what can be termed the “forensic science ecosystem”, which involves law enforcement, forensic laboratories, scientific (academic) research, medical examiner or coroner’s offices, and the legal system. For example, NCFS work product #20 is a recommendation regarding a National Code of Professional Responsibility for Forensic Science and Forensic Medicine Service Providers, which received approval at the March 2016 meeting. The number 20 is shaded in light blue because this recommendation is currently under consideration by DOJ.

At the June 20-21, 2016 NCFS meeting, final drafts for seven work products may be introduced for a vote and approval by the Commission. These documents include recommendations regarding pretrial discovery, a request for NIST to perform developmental validation studies, accreditation of digital and multimedia forensic science service providers, and formation of a national disaster call center. Views documents under consideration cover judicial vouching of experts, notice and demand provisions, and validation of forensic science methodology.

The Commission’s vision is for all forensic evidence to support the equal and impartial application of justice. The NCFS efforts can be framed into three primary goals: (1) foundational—to improve the underlying science and validity of forensic evidence and methods, (2) operational­­—to improve operational and management systems of forensic science service providers and forensic science medical providers, and (3) applicational—to improve clarity and understanding of forensic evidence. Hopefully, these goals can be realized as NCFS produces work products to strengthen the forensic science ecosystem.

About the Author

John M. Butler is vice-chair of the National Commission on Forensic Science, NIST fellow, and special assistant to the NIST Director for Forensic Science.


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