Strengthening the Intersection of Science and Justice

Today the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) named the inaugural members of their jointly created National Commission on Forensic Science—an expert advisory committee that will provide independent advice to the Justice Department in the important domain of forensic science.

Contrary to the widespread public impression generated by “CSI” and other popular crime programs, many forensic science disciplines are still maturing and all are subject to degrees of uncertainty and misinterpretation. The reliability of forensic techniques and practices—some of which are more than a century old and others of which are still in early stages of development in research labs—varies widely. And as a seminal report by the National Research Council of the National Academies concluded in 2009, there is considerable variation in the standards for forensic disciplines, and the skill levels of professionals working in the field.

The new Commission, to be co-chaired by Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology Patrick Gallagher, who serves as the Director of NIST, is a welcome addition to an array of efforts that this Administration is supporting to strengthen the validity and reliability of scientific evidence generally and forensic tests in particular.  These efforts range from support for basic research relevant to pattern-analysis (with applicability, for example, to ballistics testing and fingerprint identification) to support for workshops aimed at understanding and mitigating the impacts of cognitive bias in the interpretation of forensic test results.

Appropriately, the commission includes representatives with a breadth of expertise and experience, including forensic science service providers, research scientists and academics, representatives from law enforcement and the courts, and advocates for the rights of both victims and the accused.

As OSTP Director John Holdren noted in a Justice Department statement released this morning:  “This latest and most impressive collaboration between the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology will help ensure that the forensic sciences are supported by the most rigorous standards available—a foundational requirement in a nation built on the credo of ‘justice for all.”

OSTP looks forward to continuing its work with the Justice Department, NIST, and other agencies such as the National Science Foundation in support of further strengthening the forensic sciences.

Tania Simoncelli is Assistant Director for Forensic Science at OSTP

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