Strengthening Forensic Science In The United States

The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation held a hearing to examine the state of forensic science. Subcommittee Members heard testimony relating to the scientific and technical issues raised by the recent National Academies report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.

“Popular television shows have raised public awareness and expectation of the role of forensic science in solving crimes,” said Subcommittee Chairman David Wu (D-OR). “However, the shows depict the practice of forensics in a manner that is far different from the current state of technology. I hope this hearing is a first step in moving from entertainment to reality. We all want to support our law enforcement and judicial processes by providing them with the best forensic science base possible.”

The National Academies report makes a number of recommendations on how to improve forensic science in the United States. Many of the recommendations relate to the research needs of the forensic sciences, as well as standards and accreditation issues to improve the validity, accuracy, and reliability of forensic science tests.

One of the issues discussed was the role of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal agency with a long history of working with the law enforcement community in the development and improvement of forensic technologies and crime-fighting resources.

The National Academies report recommended that a new agency, separate from the legal and law enforcement communities, be created to work with NIST on providing oversight and correcting inconsistencies that impact the quality of forensics evidence. However, Chairman Wu questioned whether a new agency was needed.

“Given the current economic climate I would like to explore how we can build upon and improve existing federal capabilities rather than trying to create a whole new government structure,” said Wu. “We have all learned from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that legislating a new agency is far easier than executing on the implementation of the new agency.”

The related work currently done at NIST includes: developing a standard protocol for DNA testing for laboratories; working on equipment used by police, such as police traffic radar; writing standards for police equipment, including body armor; providing Standard Reference Materials for use in the calibration of instruments, such as breathalyzers; working on state-of-the-art and next-generation fingerprint recognition technology; and working to improve the quality and power of facial recognition technology and improve the standards of mug shot practice.

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