Director's Corner: Statement on Support for Forensic Science Research: Improving the Scientific Role of NIJ

On behalf of the Office for Investigative and Forensic Sciences at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), I wish to thank the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) for providing NIJ with such an insightful and thoughtful report (Support for Forensic Science Research: Improving the Scientific Role of the National Institute of Justice). We appreciate the Committee's time and effort in producing this assessment.

NIJ commissioned the report to help us monitor our progress in addressing the challenges facing the forensic science community and NIJ’s role in bolstering the forensic sciences research infrastructure that were both outlined in the 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, and the 2010 report, Strengthening the National Institute of Justice. We are gratified that in the NAS report released on September 30, the Committee found that NIJ has made considerable progress in addressing those challenges. They noted that “NIJ has a unique and critical role” among the diverse federal agencies working to positively impact the progress of forensic science because, unlike other agencies, NIJ has a mission focus on forensic science research and development.

The Committee found that NIJ should continue what it is doing, and provided a plan for how NIJ could build on its progress by taking strategic steps to improve its “capacity to support high-quality forensic science research.” Our Office of Investigative and Forensic Science is already carefully reviewing these recommendations and determining the next steps to best implement them.

During the past few years, NIJ has made significant progress in advancing research and development to support forensic science. The Committee found that the efforts of NIJ have: “(1) restored authority that is appropriate for a science agency and addressed some previous concerns about NIJ’s independence; and (2) contributed to the building of a research infrastructure necessary to develop and sustain research that advances forensic science methods.” The Committee reports that NIJ has made progress in:

  • Making its processes to identify the needs of forensic science practitioners more transparent;
  • Increasing the level of autonomy and independence for its scientific peer review process;
  • Obtaining final sign-off authority for its research awards;
  • Expanding the size of its research and development portfolio across forensic science disciplines;
  • Expanding outreach and dissemination to the practice and research communities;
  • Attracting new investigators to forensic science research;
  • Increasing the number of graduate student fellowships; and
  • Formalizing partnerships with other federal agencies involved in forensic science research, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the FBI Laboratory; the Defense Forensic Science Center; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

These successes are the result of determined efforts by the staff at NIJ. They can be proud of what they accomplished, and I thank them for their hard work and dedication.

We at NIJ are committed to building on these successes to expand our capacity to support high-quality forensic science research that addresses the needs and challenges faced by law enforcement, crime laboratories and other criminal justice actors every day. Research and development are critical to our mission, because through such efforts, new technologies and methods can be deployed to improve the accuracy, efficiency and effectiveness of forensic evidence processing. For example, research and development efforts have brought 96-sample processing (robotics) into forensic labs to replace small-batch processing, halved the number of tests needed to get statistically significant results, and increased the window for collecting samples from sexual assault cases from 48 to 72 hours (and probably will extend it more). These examples show how research and technology can be deployed to increase efficiency.

The Committee provides a “blueprint for the future” for NIJ to take its forensic science research and development activities to the next level. It notes the challenge NIJ faces expanding the participation of researchers into forensic science, which it deems essential for success, and the challenge of limited funding. The Committee issues eight recommendations for NIJ to address these challenges. Seven of these recommendations are directed at NIJ. They are focused on strategic planning, measuring and evaluating outcomes of NIJ’s investments, engaging researchers from a wide range of scientific disciplines, working with federal partners, and developing a communication plan. The remaining recommendation is directed at federal policymakers to provide “dedicated, adequate, and stable appropriations” that are “of sufficient magnitude to address the challenges facing forensic science.”

I gratefully receive the recommendations in this report. In the coming weeks, I will work with NIJ staff and U.S. Department of Justice leadership to translate these recommendations into specific action plans.

Date Created: October 2, 2015