Feb. 16, Orlando, Fla. – Midway through the first day of a meeting devoted to public discussion of forensic science standards priorities, someone asked the question that was probably on many audience members' minds.
"What is an SDO, and why are you spelling 'canvass' with two s's?" a Michigan state trooper asked from a microphone set up for public comments at the first public Organization of Scientific Area Committee (OSAC) meetings. He was puzzled by these terms repeated on many PowerPoint slides.
He already knew that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) established OSAC last year in order to develop a uniform set of standards and guidelines for the practice of forensic science. OSAC is a collaborative effort with more than 500 members on 33 committees. Members include forensic science practitioners, researchers, educators, lawyers and judges.
Like many in the forensic science community, he was interested and decided to take the opportunity to listen and offer a comment at the first public OSAC meetings held Feb. 16 and 17 in Orlando. These meetings coincided with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual conference in Orlando from Feb. 16-22.
So, what IS an SDO? If you say SDO at NASA, you're referring to the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Educators might mean the school development officer. In the military, you might mean squadron duty officer. In this context, at the intersection of forensic science and standards development, SDO means Standards Development Organization.
The Michigan state trooper and other audience members likely already understand why NIST is bringing forensic scientists and standards developers together. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, that identified concerns and recommended improvements to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions and exonerations. The recommendations include improving standardization of protocols, certification of practitioners and accreditation of laboratories. Forensic science laboratories have long used standards developed by various independent groups over many years.
NIST and the Department of Justice have been working to bring about some of the report's recommendations. The Department of Justice launched the National Commission on Forensic Science last year as NIST was working to establish OSAC. Now OSAC members are poised to roll up their sleeves and begin working on a uniform set forensic science standards, guidelines and best practices.
In order to tackle this challenge, they need to understand what SDOs do, as well as what the "canvass" method is. Karen Reczek, who works in the NIST Standards Coordination Office and is Chair of the OSAC Quality Infrastructure Committee, offered an explanation in response to the state trooper's question.
In the United States, SDOs, or Standards Development Organizations, follow a process for developing standards that cover thousands of activities and technologies from auto manufacturing to zinc mining. Examples include the Society of Automotive Engineers, the National Fire Protection Association, and the College of American Pathologists.
Many U.S. SDOs are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which has coordinated private sector, voluntary standardization systems for more than 90 years. Because even standards developers need standards, ANSI accredits SDOs and has defined a set of essential requirements for standards development. "Essential requirements include things like a process for appeals, establishing interest categories, a procedure for developing and operating a consensus body, public comment and comment adjudication," Reczek explained.
"Canvass is really just the shortened name for the all the steps needed from drafting and balloting a standards document with a consensus body to obtaining and processing comments," Reczek said. "OSAC can select either to use the canvass method or to work with an existing SDO for any of the many standards it will be developing."
For OSAC, the canvass method means that a "consensus body" will be developed by canvassing for interested parties for the development of each standard or guideline. In most cases, consensus bodies will be comprised of a different membership for each document. Once that document is finalized, the consensus body is done and disbanded. OSAC consensus bodies would be short-lived and document specific. The OSAC process includes opportunities for public comment as part of the canvass method.
OSAC-approved standards and guidelines will be posted on the OSAC Registry of Standards or the OSAC Registry of Guidelines. In addition to meeting the canvass or SDO essential requirements, they must also meet OSAC requirements for technical merit, Reczek explained.
OSAC committees and subcommittees are moving forward to initiate work on the highest priority needs they have identified. To stay up to date with OSAC and other NIST forensic science news, go to www.nist.gov/forensics and sign up to receive NIST forensic science news alerts.