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Forensic Science

Overview

NIST is working to strengthen forensic practice through research and improved standards. Our efforts involve three key components:

Science

We conduct scientific research in several forensic disciplines, including DNA, ballistics, fingerprint analysis, trace evidence, and digital, among others. We provide physical reference standards and data that help forensic laboratories validate their analytical methods and ensure accurate test results.

We also support CSAFE, a NIST Center of Excellence in Forensic Science, which is working to develop new statistical methods for use in evidence examination

Policy

We co-chaired, with the Department of Justice, the National Commission on Forensic Science, which formulated recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General on matters such as accreditation requirements for forensic science service providers.

Practice

We administer the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (OSAC), which is facilitating the development of science-based standards and guidelines for a broad array of forensic disciplines.

What Is Forensic Science?

Forensic science is the use of scientific methods or expertise to investigate crimes or examine evidence that might be presented in a court of law. Forensic science comprises a diverse array of disciplines, from fingerprint and DNA analysis to anthropology and wildlife forensics. Though they represent varied disciplines, all forensic scientists face a common set of challenges. How do you ensure that forensic methods produce reliable results? How do you communicate findings to a jury or other nonexperts in a way that is accurate and understandable? How do you keep up with new technology without falling behind on casework? Meeting these and other challenges is critical to ensuring that forensic science remains a powerful force in support of justice and public safety.

Key Accomplishments

  • Forensic SRMs: NIST develops standard reference materials (SRMs) for forensic science, including the Standard Bullet and the Human DNA Quantitation Standard. By helping to ensure that forensic labs produce accurate measurements when analyzing crime scene evidence, these SRMs contribute to public safety and fairness in the criminal justice system.
  • Digital forensics: NIST’s National Software Reference Library is one of the largest publicly  known collections of computer software in the world and includes a database of millions of digital signatures from known software files. That database is a critical tool for computer forensics experts and vastly speeds up the investigation of crimes involving digital evidence.
  • Combating the opioid epidemic: Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. NIST scientists have developed new tools that help police and forensic chemists save lives by detecting and identifying these drugs safely, efficiently and reliably.
  • Forensic science standards: NIST is accelerating the development and adoption of high-quality, technically sound forensic science standards by administering the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (OSAC). OSAC-approved standards define minimum requirements, best practices and standard protocols that help ensure that the results of forensic analysis are reliable and reproducible.  
  • Forensic DNA: NIST played a central role in developing the forensic DNA analysis techniques that have revolutionized crime fighting and have helped convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Among other things, NIST scientists have enabled enhanced DNA “fingerprints.”
     

News

Woman holding a cell phone with a bullet hole in it out at arm's length.

Answering the Call: How NIST Helps Crime Labs Recover Evidence from Mobile Devices

Everyone has a phone these days, even the bad guys. To try to get away with their crimes, lawbreakers sometimes attempt to destroy their phones and the evidence they contain. On TV, computer experts swoop in and almost magically retrieve all sorts of incriminating data from the devices, often in less than an hour. Don’t get me wrong, I like to watch shows such as CSI: Miami, CSI: NY and CSI: Cyber
Cheryle Beuning poses in front of scientific equipment, wearing safety goggles.

Spotlight: Understanding the Chemical Compounds in Cannabis

Overview of Firearms Process Map

OSAC's Firearms & Toolmarks Subcommittee Develops Firearms Process Map

A scientist in lab coat and rubber gloves places a large clear bag of marijuana on a weighing scale.

NIST Study Will Help Labs Distinguish Between Hemp and Marijuana

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