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Speech at Forensics@NIST 2016

Good morning, everyone.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you here in the auditorium and those of you viewing through our webcast to the fourth annual Forensics@NIST symposium.

Over the next two days, you will learn about the past, present and future of NIST work in forensic science—work both here on our campus and with our research partners from across the country.

We have speakers lined up who will tell you about new work in statistical, pattern, digital, ballistics, DNA, chemical and other types of forensic analysis. And we’re pleased to have an outstanding keynote speaker in Jules Epstein from the Temple University School of Law, who will discuss expert forensic testimony in the courtroom.

Many of the researchers who will be sharing their results with you are funded by the NIST Forensic Science Research Program. Our research program is one of three components of our overall efforts in forensics.

Additionally, we work to advance forensic science policy through the National Commission on Forensic Science. I have been honored to co-chair this commission with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.

The third component of NIST’s program addresses forensic science practice. Some of you here today are perhaps members of the 28 different scientific area committees and boards we’ve established thru the OSAC. More than 500 forensic science practitioners and other experts are working through these groups to establish standards and best practice guidelines for the field.

Although I was officially confirmed as NIST Director only 1.5 years ago, I’ve been with the organization 45.5 years! Explaining who we are, what we do, and why you should care is one of my favorite jobs, so please indulge me for just a few minutes.

NIST is one of the oldest scientific agencies in the federal government. We were established in 1901 to ensure U.S. manufacturers could better compete with Europe. The idea was to help industry make more accurate measurements, and in the process, enable higher quality, more innovative products.

And this idea worked amazingly well. Think of just about any key technology of the 20th or 21st centuries and NIST has helped to make it happen!

Today, I’m proud to say that NIST is a key world player in an incredibly diverse range of scientific fields—from Nobel-prize winning physics to advanced manufacturing, standards for clinical diagnostics, cybersecurity, nanotechnology and, yes, forensic science.

We got our start in this area in the 1920s. Back then, we were called the National Bureau of Standards, and one of our physicists—a dental researcher named Wilmer Souder—pioneered many forensic science methods. He was even instrumental in setting up the FBI’s first crime lab. Later today, we’ll share a short video about Souder’s work, and tomorrow there will be an opportunity to visit our museum and see some fascinating artifacts from his 50-year career here at NIST.

Perhaps his most famous case involved the kidnapping of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby. Between the 1932 kidnapping and the 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the baby’s murder, Souder’s analysis of about 10,000 documents related to the case led to the conviction.

By the time this symposium is complete and you have heard from many of NIST’s current forensic science experts, I think that you’ll find that this same kind of dedication continues here at NIST today.

Due to time constraints, we won’t be able to accommodate talks about all of our research efforts in forensic science, but we have a Poster Session this afternoon where you will be able to learn about a much wider array of our research in this area.

Over the past few years, we have ramped up both our intramural research as well as our extramural funding of forensic research, because our nation faces a critical national need in this area. As a nation, we’ve made significant progress since the highly critical landmark National Academies study of 2009.

But there is still much more to be done!

The latest call to action came from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST. After a year-long study, PCAST issued a report in September with a number of strong recommendations for improving forensic science. The PCAST report asks hard questions about the scientific foundations of methodologies and supporting research associated with several forensic science practices.

Whether you agree, disagree, or are undecided about the PCAST recommendations, there is no doubt that better forensic data, standards and scientific methods will certainly serve the cause of justice. So its timely that many of the topics you will be hearing about today and tomorrow address some of the same issues highlighted in the PCAST report.

NIST has a very broad research program in forensic science; perhaps as large as any in the world that does not get involved in crime scene investigations. We have been able to quickly expand our competence even further through our Centers of Excellence Program.

A NIST Center of Excellence in the forensic science area was announced in May 2015. The award ($20M over five years) went to a group of universities led by Iowa State University to establish the Center for Statistics and Applications for Forensic Evidence, or CSAFE. Iowa State’s partners in the center are the University of California Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Virginia. The center's mission is to establish a firm scientific foundation for the analytic techniques used in two important branches of forensic science—pattern evidence and digital evidence.

Later this morning, Dr. Alicia Carriquiry, director of CSAFE, will tell you more about the center’s activities.

Before I turn the podium back to Dr. Cavanagh and let you dive into the symposium presentations, I just want to acknowledge how important your attendance here today is for our country’s future.
Today is election day, the day we exercise our civic duty and select the political leaders who will run our government and set our nation’s course.

Today is also an election day of sorts for forensic science. 

  • A day to recommit ourselves. 
  •  A day to share research and collaborate to develop and put into practice the best and most accurate scientific tools for the practice of forensic science in our criminal justice system.

The work that you and others in the field collectively achieve in the coming years also will set our nation’s course. You will literally help convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. This is indeed a sobering mission.

Thank you for your attention and for your commitment to this very important task. 

Created November 10, 2016