Accreditation in Forensic Science
Written by Dr. William J Tilstone   


Anyone familir with the National Academy of Sciences’ report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, should have no doubt that the committee regards accreditation as a major element in dealing with what it sees as shortcomings in the nation’s forensic services. They should also have no doubt that the discussion about accreditation is how, not if, it is going to become mandatory.

While every one of us working anywhere in the extensive spectrum of forensic science is a professional dedicated to our subject, many of us are either not sure what accreditation is, or even worse, see it as a distraction forced on us from the top of the administrative chain.

I hope that this short article will help you set aside those reservations by defining accreditation, explaining where it came from, and exploring how it can help us all in today’s very challenging operational environment.

A Brief History of Accreditation

Accreditation—which is the act of giving authority or sanction to someone or something when recognized standards have been met—is all around us. Sometimes it is obvious, as in the accreditation of the schools that our children attend. But sometimes, it is less so. For example, did you enjoy your breakfast this morning? Was your enjoyment lessened by the thought that some of the ingredients—the flour used to make the pancake batter perhaps—may have contained dangerous levels of pesticides or herbicides that the farmer spread on his crops? Probably not. If you thought about it at all, it would be that “it’s all been taken care of by the farmers and the mills.” But how did they “take care of it”? Well, the purchaser required the flour to be tested, verifying that it met standards for the allowable amount of chemical residues contained.

But times are tough in the agricultural world just now. What if the farmer decided to cut costs by using a less expensive lab for testing, and that lab was less costly because it skimped on its quality control? Perhaps the grain did not come from a farm in the United States and was instead tested in its country of origin? Can we rely on the results of that testing, or does the testing need to be repeated in the U.S.—thereby increasing the flour’s cost?

Do your pancakes still taste good? Well they should, and accreditation is the reason why. The question can be phrased as, “How confident can we be about the reliability of the laboratory that is doing the testing?” And the answer is that there is an international standard that addresses the competency of testing bodies. Any laboratory that meets the requirements of the standard has demonstrated its competency, and the results from any one of them should be as dependable as the results from any of the others that meet that same standard. The equivalence of testing competency is one of the main reasons behind using international standards as a benchmark, with a goal not only of harmonization, but also of reducing the cost penalty of needless duplication.

Using accredited laboratories also facilitates trade and economic growth. The accreditation process relies on a uniform approach to determining laboratory competence—an approach that has been accepted and implemented across many borders. Because of internationally accepted testing and measurement practices, data generated by an accredited laboratory may lead to the more ready acceptance of exported goods in overseas markets. This reduces costs and eases exports and imports as it reduces or eliminates the need for retesting in another country.

Showing that a laboratory meets the required standard consists of a conformity audit—or assessment—in the language of testing and calibration laboratory accreditation. So, enjoy those pancakes and sleep easy!

Accreditation, Governments, and Regulators

The pancake example is a case where a government has set specifications for something through one of its agencies, with the object of protecting the health of individual citizens. Accreditation brings advantages to governments and regulators over a wide spectrum. These are:

  • Increasing confidence in data used to establish baselines for key analyses and decisions;
  • Reducing uncertainties associated with decisions that affect the protection of human health and the environment;
  • Increasing public confidence, because accreditation is a recognizable mark of approval;
  • Eliminating redundant reviews and improving the efficiency of the assessment process (which may reduce costs).

Using an accredited laboratory also increases confidence that:

  • Decisions regarding multiple facilities are based on comparable data;
  • Purchases received from suppliers are safe and reliable;
  • Costs associated with laboratory problems, including re-testing, re-sampling, and lost time, are minimized;
  • False positives and negatives—that can directly affect compliance with regulations—are minimized.

Accreditation and Forensic Science

The standard that applies to accreditation of testing laboratories is ISO/IEC 17025. The content of the International Standard covers a number of factors including:

  • The qualifications, training and experience of the staff;
  • The right equipment—which has been properly calibrated and maintained;
  • Adequate quality-assurance procedures;
  • Proper sampling practices;
  • Appropriate testing procedures;
  • Valid test methods;
  • Traceability of measurements to national standards;
  • Accurate recording and reporting procedures;
  • Suitable testing facilities.

All these factors contribute to a laboratory being technically competent to perform testing and are as relevant to forensic science as they are to international trade.

Where does “ISO” Come In?

ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) was established in 1947, with its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. ISO is not an acronym for the name of the organization (that would be IOS), but it is instead a play on the Greek word isos, meaning equal or the same.

As discussed in the pancake-safety example, the mission of ISO is the development of standards to facilitate international exchange of goods and services. It does this by making use of a network of national standards institutes from more than 163 countries, with ANSI being representative in the United States. For some standards, ISO partners with IEC (the International Electrotechnical Commis-sion) which is the world’s leading organization for the preparation and publication of International Standards for all electrical, electronic, and related technologies.

Some might ask, “Why are we worried about international standards for forensic science? There are no global issues…”

First of all, there are indeed global issues, and increasingly so. Cross-border crime such as money laundering, the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of drugs, and human trafficking require harmonization of approaches and mutual confidence in results. Identification of mass-disaster victims from medical or dental records and from DNA analysis is also a place where consistency and reliability of international approaches matters, whether the disaster is caused by a terrorist incident, by an accident, or by a natural event such as a tsunami.

Of more immediate concern is the fact that forensic testing is under attack from defense attorneys, and the attacks featured in the media create a false impression of a widespread failure. Responding is difficult, as the forensic community knows that overall a good job is being done by good people. But that is seen by some as self-belief—and no matter how well justified, it is not going to win the day on its own.

The response is made more difficult by the knowledge that no test is infallible, and there are bound to be failures in forensic-evidence testing just like there are failures in tests outside forensics. The critics will hunt down any actual or perceived errors in cases and use them to support their stance on lack of overall reliability. They may also suggest that examiners may be biased, with a reasonable justification in a few headline-grabbing cases, such as the 2004 Madrid train-bombing investigation where a fingerprint was erroneously ascribed to an Oregon attorney, Brandon Mayfield, and not to the actual bomber.

It can be argued that any testing laboratory in any industry or government regulatory sector should be committed to achieving the best possible quality of testing, and even without the need to respond to the above concerns, forensic service providers should embrace accreditation as an integral part of their operations. This is happening and has passed the critical mass in regard to the number of accredited laboratories such that users—attorneys and courts—will now question why a crime laboratory is not accredited. In some sectors, for example, accreditation is mandatory for DNA testing where the results are entered into the national DNA database.

Forensic Science, ISO/IEC 17025, and Beyond

There are three ISO/IEC International Standards that apply to forensic science:

The first is ISO/IEC 17025, “General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories”.

The second is ISO/IEC 17020, “General criteria for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection”—an International Standard that is becoming recognized as valuable in forensic activities such as crime scene investigation, where the parts of ISO/IEC 17025 that apply to control of testing are not always relevant.

The third is ISO/IEC 17011, “Conformity assessment—General requirements for accreditation bodies accrediting conformity assessment bodies”. The accreditation of crime laboratories or crime scene investigation units is achieved through assessment by an accrediting body, but the question of who accredits the accreditors is legitimate. The answer is that ISO/IEC 17011 is the accrediting body’s equivalent of ISO/IEC 17025 and 17020 for the testing and scene-examination bodies. The conformity audit—called an evaluation—is conducted by the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) or one of the regional accreditation cooperations that are recognized by it. These are the InterAmerican Accreditation Cooperation (IAAC) and the Asia Pacific Laboratory Cooperation (APLAC).

The evaluation of an accrediting body for conformity to ISO/IEC 17011 is a layer above the accreditation of the laboratory or crime scene unit for conformity to ISO/IEC 17025 or 17020, but there are important layers below the requirements of the International Standard, too. That standard is written to be applicable to a wide range of possible applications and are therefore generic in their requirements. Assistance in how to implement the standards in specific test or inspection areas is provided by means of additional documentation, variously described as amplification documents, field-specific criteria, or supplementals. These can be adopted by the accrediting bodies as long as nothing in them conflicts with any of the requirements of the International Standard. Many of the amplification documents are to be found in the ILAC Guidance Series documents— specifically, for forensics, Guide 19 (G-19). This guide is currently under revision to provide uniform and consistent guidance that covers ISO/IEC 17025 and 17020.

Back at the Kitchen Table…

A lot has happened since Locard laid the foundations for forensics as a scientific discipline in the first decade of the 20th Century: Colonel Calvin Goddard set up the country’s first independent crime laboratory at Northwestern University in the early 1930s, and Dr. Alec Jeffreys introduced the world to forensic DNA testing in the mid 1980s. The power of forensic science to identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent is far beyond what the pioneers could have dreamt of. At the same time, the science and legal communities have become more and more willing and able to scrutinize what we do in minute detail.

Our breakfast story concluded that we are probably ready to take it for granted that what goes into our pancakes is fit for purpose. The law and science are no longer prepared to take our word that what we do is fit for purpose—and that’s why accreditation is good for us. mmm

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , is an Assessor and Lead Assessor for Forensic Quality Services (FQS) and Accreditation Lead Assessor, ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board/FQS. He has been actively involved in forensic accreditation for almost 25 years. His lab in Adelaide, South Australia was the first non-U.S. lab to be accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, in 1989.

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