Scientists Urge National Standards for Forensics
In a column in Amstatnews, the Membership Magazine of the American Statistical Association,
Distinguished Professor Cliff Spiegelman makes the case for national forensic science reform and appeals to scientists to join Just Science
—a growing coalition formed to build consensus among the diverse range of voices supporting forensic reform in the United States. Spiegelman is a professor of statistics at Texas A&M and a senior research scientist at the Texas Transportation Institute.
In the real world, forensic science is used to determine occurrences and reconstruct crimes. It is used to identify suspects and possible crime scenes and to eliminate others. It also is used in criminal trials and appeals. Key to forensic science’s use in the real world is the confidence that law enforcement, the judicial system, and society at large place in it.
As currently constructed, however, the practice of forensic science should largely get a no-confidence vote, with the possible exception of DNA evidence.
The painful truth is that nearly all forensic procedures have been developed without much involvement from the statistical community or enough involvement from the independent, university-based scientific community or federal research labs.
For example, Speigelman cites two recent reports (“
Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
” and “
”) showing that there is no statistical basis for matching bullets recovered at crime scenes to specific guns. The article also discusses the lack of scientific validation for fingerprint and hair analysis.
The column embraces the recommendation outlined in the National Academy of Sciences’ “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward”—and supported by the Innocence Project—to create a federal entity to stimulate research, set standards and ensure the enforcement of those standards.
Speigelman writes that this federal entity should meet several key criteria:
- It must be an independent federal agency established to address the needs of the forensic science community
- It must have a culture that is strongly rooted in science, with strong ties to the national research and teaching communities, including federal laboratories
- It must have strong ties to state and local forensic entities, as well as to the professional organizations within the forensic science community
- It must not be in any way committed to the existing system, but should be informed by its experiences
- It must not be part of a law-enforcement agency
- It must have the funding, independence, and sufficient prominence to raise the profile of the forensic science disciplines and push effectively for improvements
- It must be led by persons who are skilled and experienced in developing and executing national strategies and plans for standards setting; managing accreditation and testing processes; and developing and implementing rulemaking, oversight, and sanctioning processes
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