Strengthening Forensic Science in the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report

Emily C. Lennert, Candice Bridge, Ph.D.

Category: Miscellaneous

Keywords: forensic science, research, development, advances, NAS, reliability, accreditation, certification, quality assurance, quality control

Report to be reviewed:

  1. Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward; National Academies Press: Washington, D.C., 2009.

Additional references:

  1. Wall, M. Abraham Lincoln Was a Science Champion, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson Says. (accessed Jun 17, 2016).
  2. Arthur, B. The Difference Between Quality Assurance and Quality Control. (accessed Jun 20, 2016).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review are an interpretation of the research presented in the article. These opinions are those of the summation author and do not necessarily represent the position of the University of Central Florida or of the authors of the original article.

Summary: The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a report in 2009 on the problems facing the discipline of forensic science.1 The NAS is a one of the National Academies, which are non-profit groups that serve as advisory committees for their disciplines in the U.S. The NAS was founded in 1863, chartered by President Abraham Lincoln, and has since advised Congress, the President, and the nation on science and technology issues.2 In 2005, the NAS was authorized by Congress to create a Forensic Science Committee to identify the needs of and the gaps within the forensic science community.1 Three main purposes for this study and its resulting recommendations were discussed: 1) improvements will assist law enforcement in investigation to identify criminals more reliably, 2) improvements will reduce wrongful convictions, and 3) improvements to forensic science will result in improvements in homeland security. Thirteen final recommendations for the community were presented and discussed in the NAS report; three recommendations that speak directly to the three purposes of this study will be discussed in more detail in this summary. For information about the other recommendations, please refer to the report.

Recommendation 6 was focused on the development of tools to “advance measurement, validation, reliability, information sharing, and proficiency testing” and “establish protocols for forensic examinations, methods, and practices.”1 Currently, recognized standard practices are not established for many disciplines within forensic science; the NAS report notes that “most disciplines still lack best practices or any coherent structure for the enforcement of operating standards.”1 Enhancements in reliability and validity of forensic methods will result in the presentation of stronger scientific evidence in court. The development of standard practices for forensic evaluations within a particular discipline would help achieve this recommendation.

Recommendation 7 was for mandatory accreditation of laboratories and certification of individuals in the forensic science profession. One of the flaws in forensic science, which was highlighted in the report, was that there were some disciplines that had established standards and certification/accreditation programs; however, these items were not mandatory for each laboratory that practiced this discipline. Implementation of recommendation 7 should come after the establishment of the discipline-specific standards discussed in recommendation 6. According to the NAS, certification and accreditation programs should be devised with established, recognized international standards in mind, such as ISO 17025. Certification should require examinations, proficiency tests, and adherence to an ethical code, as well as continuing education and recertification procedures. The NAS continued by saying, mandatory certification should be accompanied by a mandate stating that only certified individuals may “practice within a forensic science discipline or testify as a forensic professional.”1 Appropriate disciplinary procedures should be established to ensure adherence to certification and accreditation policies and practices. Mandatory certification and accreditation will lend to the credibility of a forensic science expert witness as well as the credibility of the scientific evidence presented.

Recommendation 8 was for the establishment of quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC) procedures, which should be performed routinely to verify the accuracy of forensic work. QA and QC procedures should provide forensic laboratories with means of self-checking work, allowing for continuous improvement and self-correction. QA provides assurance that the standards and protocols being followed are appropriate for the task and are properly implemented; QA focuses on the quality of processes.3 QC checks that the work that is done follows protocol and standards; QC focuses on the quality of output.3 QA and QC work together to ensure that proper protocol is implemented and carried out to produce reliable, correct results. By routinely performing QA and QC procedures, forensic science will ensure reliability in the processes followed and the results of analysis.

Relevance: Implementation of the NAS recommendations will make forensic science a more reliable and validated tool nationwide. While some laboratories may have implemented several or all of these recommendations, it is not certain that all laboratories have done so. However, by implementing several of these items, it may be possible to eliminate the risk of introducing “junk science” into criminal proceedings and therefore mitigating the risk of convictions based on improper scientific evidence.

Potential conclusions: The NAS recommendations lend to the credibility of the science presented in court and the individuals and institutions presenting them. If evidence is presented that does not follow a standard protocol, it is possible that the evidence was not processed in the best way possible. An un-established method may not be reliable or reproducible. If the individual is not certified in the field, there is a possibility of lack of adequate and appropriate training and education. Lack of QC and QA lends to the refutability of evidence and testimony as well. QA and QC provide a method of self-correction and continual improvement to the protocol that it regulates.

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