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Remarks at the International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management

As delivered.

Thank You, Mark, and good morning and welcome to the first-ever international symposium on reducing errors in forensic science.

It is so great to see so many forensic experts from all over the world gathered in one place with a common purpose—to discuss our collective efforts to "strengthen the science that underpins forensic evidence used in our criminal justice systems." Your discussions over the next 5 days are critically important for all our citizens.

Confidence in the collection, review and analysis of evidence by law enforcement and in the ability of the courts to fairly judge the strength of that evidence is the bedrock of any civil society. Recent headlines reinforce this.

In April, FBI forensic scientists acknowledged that their examiners gave flawed testimony in more than 250 identifications made by hair analysis dating back to the 1980s.

In March, a national accreditation board ordered Washington, D.C.'s, crime lab to stop in-house testing of DNA due to inadequate training and laboratory procedures.

And just in the last few weeks, a U.S. Circuit Court judge published an article in the Georgetown Law Review that concluded, "Some fields of forensic expertise are built on nothing but guesswork and false common sense."

Examples like these confirm the wisdom of a National Academy of Science panel report that I'm sure most of us in this room are already familiar with.

More than 6 years ago now, the panel concluded that forensic science suffered from "a lack of strong standards and protocols" and a clear need for "substantial research to validate basic premises and techniques, assess limitations, and discern the sources and magnitude of error."

Which brings us back to today and some shared goals I'd like to propose for this conference and the community moving forward.

As many of you will recall not so long ago, guidance to/for the criminal justice system was provided by 23 individual Scientific Working Groups, but the 2009 NAS report criticized the 21 Scientific Working Groups as being too fragmented, with very different structures and outputs.

It also [stated] that standards were not enforceable or developed in an open and transparent manner. In response, DOJ and NIST established an MOU in February 2013 for creation of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC). OSAC provides a unified structure for development of open, voluntary, consensus-based forensic science standards catalogued in a Designed Registry of Approved Standards to allow accreditation bodies to enforce standards nationwide.

Under NIST's leadership, there are five scientific areas covered by OSAC committees: Biology and DNA, Chemistry and instrumental analysis, Crime scene and death investigation, Digital and multimedia, Physics and pattern interpretation.

Twenty-four committees of 542 volunteers now coordinate the development of standards and guidelines for the forensic science community. I ask everyone here to actively support the OSAC process, either through membership or input to the committees' deliberations and dissemination of best practices.

You can also help by sharing both your successes and your failures with the community, rigorously applying validated measurement methods firmly grounded in strong science, and participating in the development and implementation of standards throughout forensic science practice areas.

Together, we can strengthen the vision of everyone in both forensic science and the broader criminal justice system. We can put a laser focus on the sources of error in forensic practice and on validated, quantitative methods for determining the magnitude of that error. We must do this, because forensic mistakes cost innocent people their rights, their livelihoods, their relationships with family and others, and in some cases, even their lives!

In Mark's introduction of me, he mentioned that the Commission on Forensic Science is co-chaired by the NIST director and the U.S. Deputy Attorney General (Department of Justice). Additionally, NIST has a very broad laboratory-based research program in forensic science.

The connection to forensic science for the Department of Justice is pretty clear, but for NIST, this connection may not be as obvious.

NIST is an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce—hence my collateral responsibility of Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and director of NIST. With a straight face and five recent Nobel prizes, two National Medal of Science winners, and a host of other national and international awards to prove it, I am proud to say that NIST is a world-class scientific and technical agency.

Our mission is to drive innovation and enhance U.S. economic competitiveness. We do this in three major ways:

• An intramural, laboratory-based research program focused on measurement science, technology, and standards solutions;
• An extramural program that supports manufacturers through both a nationwide network of centers serving smaller firms with business and technology assistance and an Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office that provides governance for a network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes that help to bridge the gaps between innovation and commercialization; and
• A Baldrige Performance Excellence Program that trains organizations of all kinds to optimize their operations and maximize their results.

Now, I am sure that some of you are wondering: What about forensics? Where is the connection?

Well, since our founding back in 1901, NIST's expertise in measurement science has made us the go-to agency for Congress and the Executive Branch whenever a critical national need emerges that hinges on measurement, standards or new technologies. Forensics clearly fits this description, and it has for a long time.

A NIST expert from our earliest days, Wilmer Souder, worked to develop forensics measurement methods beginning in 1913. His decades of expertise and advice in measurement science ultimately was used to establish the FBI's first crime lab in 1932. Souder's research in typewriter, handwriting and ballistics pattern recognition was called on to help law enforcement in hundreds of cases.

Today, NIST's portfolio of forensic science laboratory-based research programs stretches from arson to video analysis to biometrics to explosives detection. Identifying, eliminating and quantifying measurement errors is a key part of all of these efforts.

In addition, as part of our work with the OSAC committees, we've recently published reports on guidelines and best practices in reducing human error in fingerprint analysis, preserving biological evidence and using RFID technology to improve evidence storage and retrieval.

Upcoming NIST reports will look to improve handwriting analysis and the selection of quality staff for forensic labs. Also on the horizon is a comprehensive catalog of biometric and forensic databases, as well as process maps for forensic analyses in the areas of fingerprints and tool marks.

Another big step toward forensic error management was taken in May when we announced funding to establish a Forensic Science Center of Excellence. This center, led by Iowa State University and in partnership with three other academic institutions, will focus on strengthening the statistical foundation for analyzing both pattern evidence and digital evidence. It will also provide training for judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other relevant stakeholders. We expect the work of the center to significantly reduce measurement errors and increase confidence in the results achieved with improved statistical tools and methods.

But perhaps the most important role for NIST in the fight against error in forensic science is the one exemplified by this symposium—helping to pull the world's experts together and rally the troops to the cause of stronger, more accurate forensic science.

This week, we are nearly 400 people strong, with representation from 35 states and 10 countries. We come from all parts of the forensic science community: government, academia and industry—and all with a single purpose—to make error in forensics a rare occurrence, or better still, just a memory.

The opportunities offered to you this week for learning, sharing, understanding and helping create positive change are unprecedented. I have to tell you, I'm a bit jealous. As the director of NIST, I cannot immerse myself in any subject area like you are about to do in such an important topic. First, you'll get an inside look at the suffering that can befall a victim of forensic science error from our keynote speakers Brandon Mayfield and Steven Wax. With their charge to prevent such horror from happening to others, we'll move forward into what promises to be a full and rewarding 4 days.

Our symposium agenda includes eight world-renown plenary speakers, 42 sessions across eight technical tracks, 105 individual presentations, nine panels, and a session containing 20+ posters.

To wrap up the meeting and put all that we've learned in perspective, will be a moot court presentation on Friday.

Before I introduce our next speaker, I just have to thank the staff who have worked so hard over the past year to bring this symposium to life:

• Our organizing committee chairman Mark Stolorow.
• Our technical program co-chairs Robert Thompson and Marty Herman.
• Our scientific committee members Marcella Navarro Brown, John Butler, Mike Coble, Barbara Guttman, John Roberts, and Jessica Staymates.
• And finally, a special thank you to the two dynamos who made certain that every element of this symposium would be a huge success: Donna Kimball and Mary Lou Norris.
• Congratulations to the whole team and my sincere gratitude for a job well done!

Ladies and gentlemen, forensic science plays a critical role in solving crimes, bringing perpetrators to justice, and safeguarding the innocent from wrongful convictions.

The 2009 NAS Report told us that we face still many challenges in performing this invaluable service to the best of our abilities. We can meet those challenges and make the system work effectively, reliably, consistently and fairly for all.

Let's seize this opportunity! Thank you.

Created July 27, 2015, Updated April 2, 2019