News 12.22.16

In Memoriam: Dr. Stephen Fienberg

By Innocence Staff

The Innocence Project remembers the life and impact of a man who had a vision for how statistics could shape public policy. Dr. Stephen Fienberg believed that scientific reasoning could offer a solution to the tensions between science and law. To this end, he made contributions through research, scientific organizations, and engaged both emerging and established statisticians on work that strengthened forensic science in service of just outcomes.

Dr. Fienberg began his service to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1977 and served for the past 11 years on its Report Review Committee, which oversees the peer review of every publication. In that role, he had a tremendous influence on NAS publications and integrated statisticians into its work. His contributions could be found on issues of statistics and research methodology, but also on a wide range of scientific reports critical to criminal justice including the two reports standardizing the use of forensic DNA analysis, reports that recognized the lack of validity of polygraph and bullet lead analysis, eyewitness identification, and the forensic science system.

The 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward¸ was a springboard for the Innocence Project’s federal forensic science advocacy. The 2011 report, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, was instrumental in fortifying the Innocence Project’s efforts to improve the administration of eyewitness identification procedures.

Dr. Fienberg was keen on sharing his knowledge and expertise with others. He mentored generations of students as a professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University, while serving on the National Commission on Forensic Science and as a principal investigator with the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence (CSAFE), a National Institute of Standards and Technology sponsored research center. He also served as a Senior Advisor to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) on their monumental 2016 report, Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods.

PCAST Co-Chair and Innocence Project board member Eric Lander described his contribution to society: “Steve Fienberg is not just a statistician-he is a public statistician. He has brought his considerable statistical prowess to bear on problems of great public importance-including his work to ensure that forensic science in the criminal courts meet appropriate scientific standards. His contributions to PCAST’s 2016 report were invaluable.”

Dr. Fienberg authored a declaration regarding the state of statistical knowledge in the general scientific community and how it compared with the interpretation of results from microscopic hair comparison cases which played a direct role in supporting the FBI hair review.

Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld reflected, “He was fearless and I saw him stand by morally principled and scientifically correct positions notwithstanding the powerful resistance to reform. He never blinked and his contribution to the criminal justice system saved lives and gave people languishing in prison their liberty.”

Throughout his career, Dr. Fienberg identified important social issues in need of rigorous data-driven analytical assessments and cultivated a community of statisticians to tackle these problems with him. For his unmatched achievements in the application of statistics to making the world a more just place, we honor Dr. Fienberg.

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