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NIJ Looking for a Few Good Statisticians

1 June 2012 2,421 views One Comment

Forensic science R&D benefits from statistical support

    For this month’s guest column, Gerald LaPorte, a physical scientist at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and David Fialkoff, an NIJ contract writer, describe steps NIJ has taken over the last few years to address weaknesses in forensic science identified in the 2009 National Academies Report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The authors request the involvement of statisticians in solicitations for research to bolster the scientific foundations of forensic science disciplines.
    ~ Steve Pierson, ASA Director of Science Policy

    Contributing Editors

      Gerald M. LaPorte is the acting associate director at the National Institute of Justice in the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, where he provides expert analysis and advice on agency-wide programs or issues of national impact relating to forensic science. LaPorte has numerous scientific publications and has presented nearly 100 training seminars, lectures, and workshops in 13 countries.

      David B. Fialkoff is a writer and an associate communications manager at Lockheed Martin, which operates the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. He has a BA in sociology/criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from The George Washington University Law School.

      The need for increased collaboration between statisticians and forensic scientists became more focused after the National Academies published Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward in 2009. This study, initiated and supported by NIJ and authored by a committee assembled by the National Research Council (NRC), gathered testimony from a cross-section of forensic science disciplines and made a number of critical recommendations. The study concluded that forensic science, as a whole, produces valuable evidence that contributes to the successful prosecution and conviction of criminals, as well as the exoneration of the innocent. The report also identified systemic weaknesses in forensic evidence and emphasized the harm done when poor forensic evidence is used in adjudicating a case.

      The NRC committee made 13 recommendations designed to remove or ameliorate these systemic weaknesses. Of particular note here are recommendations three and five:

      Recommendation 3: Research is needed to address issues of accuracy, reliability, and validity in the forensic science disciplines … in the following areas:

      • Studies establishing the scientific bases demonstrating the validity of forensic methods
      • The development and establishment of quantifiable measures of the reliability and accuracy of forensic analyses. Studies of the reliability and accuracy of forensic techniques should reflect actual practice on realistic case scenarios, averaged across a representative sample of forensic scientists and laboratories. Studies also should establish the limits of reliability and accuracy that analytic methods can be expected to achieve, as the conditions of forensic evidence vary. The research by which measures of reliability and accuracy are determined should be peer reviewed and published in respected scientific journals.
      • The development of quantifiable measures of uncertainty in the conclusions of forensic analyses
      • Automated techniques capable of enhancing forensic technologies

      Recommendation 5: [Research is encouraged in programs] on human observer bias and sources of human error in forensic examinations. Such programs might include studies to determine the effects of contextual bias in forensic practice. In addition, research on sources of human error should be closely linked with research conducted to quantify and characterize the amount of error.

      NIJ agrees with these NRC recommendations. We think research, development, and evaluation are systematic processes that build a more efficient, effective, and fair criminal justice system. We are committed to providing the knowledge and applying it to meet the rigorous scientific and technical challenges frequently encountered in the various disciplines of forensic science.

      Even before the NRC released their report, NIJ was investing hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development (R&D). The great majority was allocated to DNA R&D.

      Like many other disciplines, research priorities in forensic science are affected by current events and technological innovations. So, although critical research in the forensic sciences was taking place before 2009, the NRC report led to a shift in NIJ’s priorities. In 2009, NIJ introduced a first-of-its-kind solicitation, titled “Fundamental Research to Improve Understanding of the Accuracy, Reliability, and Measurement Validity of Forensic Science Disciplines.”

      Research funded under the “fundamental research” solicitation addresses the strengths and limitations of the following:

      • Analytical procedures
      • Sources of bias and variation
      • Quantification of uncertainties
      • Measures of performance
      • Procedural steps in the analysis of forensic evidence
      • Methods to continuously monitor and improve the forensic evidence analysis process

      The goal was to investigate the fundamental underpinnings of forensic science disciplines that are primarily qualitative and develop more objective measures to improve current practices. NIJ has now funded 37 fundamental research grants totaling more than $15 million.

      Although it is too early to fully evaluate the effect of fundamental research over the past several years, American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) President-elect Douglas H. Ubelaker wrote the following in the AAFS newsletter in 2010:

      A recent major boon to research in forensic science has been the National Institute of Justice’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS), whose sole goal is to strengthen the quality and practice of forensic science. Over the past two years, OIFS has channeled over $300 million to this end, of which over $45 million directly targeted research. Support for research is channeled through three portfolios: Forensic DNA Research and Development, General Forensics (non-DNA) Research and Development, and Fundamental Research. …

      In 2011, NIJ released two new solicitations: Basic Scientific Research to Support Forensic Science for Criminal Justice Purposes (PDF download) and Applied Research and Development in Forensic Science for Criminal Justice Purposes (PDF download).

      With NIJ funding, researchers have contributed significantly to the evolution of DNA analysis, but research efforts in the areas of impression and pattern evidence such as fingerprints, firearms and toolmark examinations, and document examinations are challenging, since these disciplines are more qualitative and experienced based. Since 2009, NIJ has awarded more than $71 million to studies in various forensic disciplines. In past years, the largest portion has gone to forensic DNA ($24 million), but a significant amount has been allocated to friction ridge ($8.5 million), impression evidence ($7.7 million), and fire and arson investigation ($2.8 million). Overall, 67% of the funding is for applied research and 33% is for basic and fundamental research.

      Like all scientific research agencies, NIJ is committed to building knowledge through interdisciplinary approaches and partnerships with other professional scientists such as anthropologists, chemists, and statisticians. At the core of our research and development program is the need for rigorous peer review. Our process involves peer reviewers who evaluate submitted proposals, and, just as important, a panel of reviewers who evaluate the completed research to provide feedback to the grantee. Currently, NIJ has more than 170 active awards, many of which are quantitative studies, and this has created a stringent demand for qualified statisticians.

      The need to develop more quantifiable data in the areas of impression and pattern analysis, for example, has caused the forensic community to focus on expanding the scientific basis of the accuracy, validity, and reliability of these disciplines. And with the input of statisticians, NIJ is confident these goals can be achieved. In other words (to paraphrase a popular movie), NIJ is looking for a few good statisticians because NIJ can handle the truth.

      Click here to find out more about NIJ’s current funding opportunities. Click here or send an email to forensic.research@ojp.usdoj.gov for more information about NIJ’s forensic R&D activities. We also invite you to the 2012 NIJ conference, to take place June 18–20 in Arlington, Virginia.

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