Bringing the Forensic Sciences into Focus

Bringing the Forensic Sciences into Focus

SOMETIMES the difference between guilt and innocence can hang on a single fiber, be it a bloodstained thread or a strand of DNA. The traces of a crime are fragile and can be difficult to find, collect, process, and interpret. It requires experts with years of training and experience to fit the pieces together and reconstruct what happened and who's responsible.


NIST computer scientists design reference materials and standards to calibrate and help ensure the interoperability of fingerprint imaging and matching systems.
photo ©Nicholas McIntosh

But in order for these experts to do their jobs, they need the right tools and access to the highest quality resources and data. They need performance and procedural standards. They need NIST.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md., with campuses in Boulder, Colo., and Charleston, S.C., NIST is a national laboratory dedicated to the advancement of measurement science (metrology) and the development of standards that affect a variety of disciplines and industries.

NIST's reputation for impartiality and expertise and our commitment to excellence and exactness drew the attention of criminal investigators in the years immediately following its founding in 1901. As a result, NIST served as the nation's de facto criminal forensics laboratory from 1913 until the FBI hired its first scientist in 1932. Since that time, NIST has continued to play an important role in improving the accuracy and reliability of forensic science by developing calibration standards and advancing the state of the art of measurement techniques and technology.

NIST forensics science research and resources include:

Forensic DNA Analysis: Leaders in the field of forensic DNA typing, NIST researchers have written classic instructive texts on the subject and produce certified standard reference materials to aid with quality assurance in the laboratory. NIST scientists are now developing methods to decrease the time required to perform a DNA test and assisting with the evaluation of prototype rapid DNA typing instrumentation. NIST is also collaborating with others in the law enforcement research community to develop new techniques such as genetic kinship analysis, which enables authorities to use the DNA of a close relative to narrow in on an unknown suspect.


NIST's Applied Genetics Group is focused on developing standards and technology to aid human, plant, and animal identification using genetic information.
photo ©Robert Rathe

Arson Investigation: According to the FBI, nearly 59,000 cases of arson were reported in 2009. These crimes caused an average of $17,411 in damages and resulted in hundreds of deaths. NIST has long aided the development of technologies and strategies to prevent, combat, and investigate fire. NIST's newly expanded large fire laboratory allows researchers to study in detail all types of fire scenarios. NIST has also developed sophisticated modeling software that can help investigators recreate fire conditions and simulate the movement of heat and smoke through enclosed spaces. NIST works closely with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for standards creation and ASTM E30 for documentary standard development.

NIST scientists are ... assisting with the evaluation of prototype rapid DNA typing instrumentation

Impression Analysis: For the past 35 years, NIST has worked with the FBI to improve the accuracy and speed of fingerprint analysis software and to develop input and interoperability standards. Now NIST is working to advance standards and metrology for assessing the performance of fingerprint system technologies while promoting industry innovation through coordinated performance assessment activities. NIST is focused on developing applications that fulfill the needs of law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies. NIST's efforts include providing latent fingerprint tests and support to the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and Next Generation Identification program. NIST researchers are also actively engaged in identifying sources of error and developing methods for minimizing the chances of error in impression analysis. 

Computer and Cell Phone Forensics: Because nearly everyone owns a cell phone or other mobile device, they can be important sources of information during criminal investigations. Forensic computer analysts need to know that the tools they are using are able to retrieve that data fully and faithfully. NIST researchers assess the capabilities of these tools and devise ways to establish reference test materials and test procedures for them. NIST has released more than 80 publications addressing computer and cellular forensics since 1998.

NIST is presently looking to build upon and expand the scope of its efforts to support the important work of forensic scientists. NIST and the Department of Justice are working together to address the concerns raised in the 2009 report by the National Research Council (NRC), Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.

In consultation with the forensic science community, NIST has identified six key areas on which to focus for future investment:

  • Develop, critically evaluate, and publish new reference methods and technologies for understanding crime scenes and identifying criminals.
  • Test and measure the uncertainty, including such factors as bias, precision, and human errors, in existing forensic methods.
  • Improve the accuracy, reliability, and interoperability of forensic methods and data through research in underlying science, rigorous testing, and methods for assessing conformance to standards.
  • Develop calibration systems, reference materials and databases, and technology test beds for reliable and accurate forensic practice.
  • Work with national and international standards developing organizations, academia, instrument manufacturers, database creators and disseminators, and the forensic science user communities to encourage adoption of scientifically rigorous and well-characterized methods and practices.
  • Create rigorous training programs to facilitate basic understanding of underlying metrology in applied forensic procedures and methods for various levels of teachers, forensic science analysts, and crime laboratory managerial staff. Further, create a continuing education process for the participants to assist in the implementation of lessons learned.

Engineers at NIST create tests to make sure commercial forensic tools for cell phones used in digital forensic investigations give accurate results.
photo ©Nicholas McIntosh

These investments will go to the heart of the fairness and reliability of the U.S. justice system. Forensic science, properly applied, is arguably the only objective science and fact-based approach toward understanding what the evidence means, and overcoming human bias in the investigation and prosecution of crime. A major outcome of these investments will be to strengthen the utility and reliability of forensic evidence in the courtroom.

This work also has the potential for significant cost savings for the U.S. justice system by reducing the number of mistrials or retrials related to questions about forensic analysis. One economic analysis of cost savings from forensic DNA testing alone estimated a cost savings of $35 for every dollar invested; the same analysis predicted that if DNA testing were fully utilized U.S. justice system could realize $12.9 billion in annual savings.


The anticipated results of NIST's current and future efforts in forensic science are expected to include:

  • New and innovative forensic science technologies.
  • Increased use of documentary standards and measurement services by the forensic community.
  • Creation of reference materials, reference databases, and new calibration services to improve the consistency of the implementation of forensic science across the nation.
  • Enhanced ability to understand the evidence, identify suspects, and prosecute and convict criminals while exonerating the innocent.
  • Greater confidence in the U.S. criminal justice system.

For more information about how NIST can help your investigative team, please contact the Law Enforcement Standards Office (OLES).

Law Enforcement Standards Office (OLES):

Telephone: (301) 975-2756 or 2757
Fax: (301) 948-0978
100 Bureau Drive, M/S 8102
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8102

Created March 09, 2012, Updated September 21, 2016