Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.
Source: Victor W. Weedn, MD, JD, AAFS 2015-16 President
At the end of May, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations approved a $54.1 billion Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill that made significant cuts to several Department of Justice assistance programs for state, local, and tribal law enforcement and did not fund others. At the time of drafting this article, the bill was en route to the floor of the House. Of most significance to our community, the Committee chose not to fund the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program; however, it has not done so for many years—yet it has receded to the Senate mark. In FY 2015, this program was funded at $12 million, but the FY 2016 House bill does not fund this valuable grant program. We are aggressively working with the Senate on this funding. The Coverdell program provides grant funding to states, law enforcement agencies, local governments, and the forensic community to help improve the quality and timeliness of forensic science and medical examiner services. This has been a pattern over the past few years, with the Senate restoring funding—but this is not guaranteed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is working on the next iteration of the Leahy-Cornyn legislation and we continue to provide input. Again, the major thrust of it is a Forensic Science Board within an Office of Forensic Science at the Department of Justice (DoJ), mandatory accreditation and certification, standards setting through National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) (in the amended version), and research grant support.
The Senate Commerce Committee is working on a redraft of the Rockefeller bill to support the NIST efforts and scientific research.
Recent news stories on forensic science (bitemarks, FBI hair analysis, Washington, DC, labs, Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) allele frequency database) have fueled interest in calls for forensic science reform.
NCFS COMMITTEE REPORT
Source: Dean M. Gialamas, MS, AAFS NCFS Committee Chair
The National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) held its sixth meeting April 30-May 1 in Washington, DC. The latest meeting offered several new work products and updates from Commission subcommittees. Some highlights from the meeting include:
Recharter & Commission Business: The NCFS has been re-chartered for another two years and the digital evidence has been added to the scope of purview (previously restricted in the last charter). Also of note was the creation of a Bylaws Subcommittee for the NCFS operations. There was some discussion at the meeting about certain members of the Commission functioning in an “executive-like” role. The Commission voted to appoint four Commissioners to work on this subcommittee along with the Co-Chairs, the Designated Federal Official, and the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and address areas such as: executive duties and functions to support the Commission activities, policy on replacing commission members, life cycle requirements of subcommittees, and reviewing and strengthening policies on voting and public comments.
Work Products Approved: The NCFS voted to approve the following work products:
- Directive on universal laboratory accreditation
- Views Document on inconsistent terminology
- Views Documents on working definitions
(Note: In previous meetings, the NCFS had already adopted directives on accreditation and certification of Medicolegal Death Investigators (MDI), called for a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey for forensic providers and a Views Document on scientific literature.)
Work Products Being Drafted: The draft documents include: root cause analysis, pretrial discovery, use of the term “reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” national code of professional responsibility, electronic network for Medium-Dependent Interface (MDI) (Medical Examiner/Coroner Information Network (MECIN)), Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) interoperability, and increasing the supply of forensic pathologists.
Vacancies: There are five vacancies anticipated on the NCFS due to voluntary resignations. The application period closed on May 28. Those positions will be filled in the near future with Commissioners of similar educational and professional backgrounds.
New Designated Federal Official: A new Designated Federal Officer (DFO) was announced at the last Commission meeting. Andrew Bruck will be replacing Brette Steele as the Commission’s DFO.
The next Commission meeting will be held on August 10-11 in Washington, DC. To stay up to date on the activities and work products of the Commission, members are encouraged to visit www.justice.gov/ncfs.
OSAC COMMITTEE REPORT
Source: Barry K. Logan, PhD, AAFS NIST SAC Ad Hoc Committee Chair
Activity at the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) at NIST – Our First Year
We are now almost a year into the initiation of the OSAC process begun by NIST designed to promote the development of registries of standards and guidelines for the professional practice of forensic science. Ultimately, the goal is to have the standards adopted by accrediting and certifying organizations to increase quality, consistency, and public confidence in the reliability of forensic science.
The OSAC was formed in 2014 in response to the 2009 National Academy of Science’s Report on forensic science, which was critical of the lack of consensus standards in many forensic science disciplines and questioned the underlying science that supported some techniques used in criminal investigations and prosecutions.
Prior to the establishment of the OSAC, Scientific Working Groups (SWG) ran independently with some support from the FBI to promote best practices, provide technical community resources, and encourage alignment in approaches to forensic casework. However, the work of the SWGs was inconsistent, and while some had developed standards (“musts” and “shalls”) or guidelines (“mays” and “shoulds”), most had not followed a recognized standards development process, such as that outlined by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). There was also no clear path to formal adoption of the SWGs standards by accrediting or certifying organizations.
The ANSI standards development process requires diversity of input in the creation of the standard and an opportunity for public comment from stakeholders, which for forensic science would include scientists in other disciplines, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judiciary, academic forensic scientists, researchers, professional organizations, government agencies, funding organizations, and others. It also has diversity in terms of the agencies represented by the participants throughout local, state, and federal government forensic science organizations, private sector forensic laboratories, academia, and industry, including instrument manufacturers. Finally, the proposed standard and the feedback received needs to be evaluated by a body with its own diversity of perspective including statistics, human factors, and the law. This process helps to ensure that the standards developed are authoritative and anticipate challenges and issues of interpretation before they are implemented, rather than afterward.
The OSAC process is very heavily driven by forensic science practitioners. The structure of the organization is described in detail on the NIST website (http://www.nist.gov/forensics/osac/index.cfm). Under NIST’s leadership, more than 400 forensic science practitioners in 24 discipline subcommittees are teamed with researchers and statisticians and have additional legal, human factors and quality infrastructure resource committees to call on for input during the standards development process. The subcommittees can create their own standards from scratch, but are encouraged to look at existing U.S. and international standards and guidelines documents, including much of the work previously done by the SWGs, to serve as a basis for creating new standards documents that can go through an ANSI-compliant standards setting process.
Once formally reviewed and accepted by the Forensic Science Standards Board (FSSB) of the OSAC, the standards will be published in a NIST registry of FSSB-approved forensic science standards which, together with guidelines documents, will form a Forensic Science Code of Practice.
The FSSB consists of 17 individuals, 13 of whom are forensic science practitioners including representatives of AAFS, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT), the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE), and the International Association for Identification (IAI). The group includes two past presidents of AAFS, myself, and Dr. Douglas Ubelaker (http://www.nist.gov/forensics/first-forensic-science-standards-board-062614.cfm). Twelve of the 17 FSSB members are Members or Fellows of the AAFS.
During its first year, the FSSB under NIST’s leadership has appointed more than 500 individuals to its various committees, subcommittees, and resource committees; has developed terms of reference and roles and responsibilities documents for those committees; in January, facilitated two weeks of kick-off meetings for all 24 technical subcommittees in Norman, OK; and held the first public meetings of the Scientific Area Committees (SAC) to report on the process to the public and the forensic science community. These meetings took place during our AAFS Annual Meeting in Orlando and the video recordings of the event are available at: http://www.nist.gov/forensics/aafs-2015-webcast.cfm.
The current work of the OSAC is focusing on educating the organizations’ committee and subcommittee membership on the ANSI-compliant standards development process; reviewing a catalog of existing international forensic science standards, guidelines, and best practices documents compiled by NIST; and creating a public website where all approved policies and procedures, presentations, meeting minutes, and webcasts of the OSAC committees and subcommittees are posted (https://workspace.forensicosac.org/kws/public/documents?view=all-documents). The subcommittees have also established Task Groups to work on specific documents and projects that represent opportunities for scientists not currently appointed to OSAC committees to participate in the standards development process. If you are interested in participating and have not previously applied, please do so at: https://www.nist.gov/forensics/osac-application.cfm.
As the AAFS representative to the FSSB, I have been asked by President Victor Weedn to chair an AAFS Liaison Committee for the OSAC. The membership of the committee is Heidi Eldridge (Criminalistics), Christopher Fabricant (Jurisprudence), Bruce McCord (Criminalistics), Keith Pinckard (Pathology/Biology), and Sandra Rodriguez-Cruz (Criminalistics). The mission of the committee is to facilitate communication of the activity of the OSAC to the AAFS membership and to provide a channel to the membership for providing questions or input on the OSAC process back to the FSSB.
Among the activities we have discussed for this committee is to prepare FAQs from the membership about the organization and how it works, to develop key contact information, to report progress on standards adoption, and explain how to access information about the organization. Please direct these questions to the committee members listed above, or to me directly, and they will be addressed through the AAFS News Feed, email blasts with emerging news of opportunities for joining OSAC on a subcommittee or task group, letters, and on the AAFS website. In addition, the committee will discuss other ways of highlighting the OSAC and its activities during the AAFS annual meeting.