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NIJ Awards $16M to Support Forensic Science Research

Since 2009, NIJ has funded over 660 forensic science research and development projects, making it a leader in the advancement of forensic sciences.

On September 26, 2023, NIJ announced $16 million in new funding to support 33 projects under the FY23 Research and Development in Forensic Science for Criminal Justice Purposes solicitation. Through this program, NIJ continues to advance the speed, accuracy, and reliability of forensic analysis, which ultimately bolsters the administration of justice.

“NIJ is on the forefront of cutting-edge innovations in forensic science, and the outcomes from these NIJ-funded projects will further enhance the field’s methods, strengthen evidence in court, improve public safety, and create a more fair and equitable justice system,” said NIJ senior science advisor Janine Zweig.

Funding Highlights for Fiscal Year 2023

Since 2009, NIJ has invested nearly $300 million in its Research and Development in Forensic Science for Criminal Justice Purposes program — its largest ongoing research initiative — making it a global leader in the advancement of forensic science. The program spans the breadth of forensic science disciplines from forensic biology, medicolegal death investigation, and toxicology, to trace evidence analysis and more. The following are a few examples from this year’s awards:

  • Developmental Validation of a Novel Multi-analyte Recovery Method for Trace Biological Samples, West Virginia University Research Corporation, Morganton, WV ($494,268)
    Today’s forensic scientist will soon need to target an entire suite of molecular analytes. There is an urgent unmet need for adding a multi-analyte recovery method compatible with trace biological samples to the forensic scientist’s toolbox. While the target for STR genotyping and human individualization is clearly DNA, there is a growing need for analysis of multiple analytes in forensic casework. For example, analyzing mRNA and protein are methods for body fluid identification, while the analysis of drug metabolites is performed in forensic toxicology laboratories.

    This award builds on a prior NIJ award to develop a novel method that enables highly efficient recovery of DNA and RNA from trace biological samples but is also non-destructive to proteins and metabolites. This project will perform a full developmental validation of this method according to Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods guidelines. The proposal team will work with forensics practitioners to ensure new protocols align with existing workflows.
  • Time Since Deposition Signatures for Touch DNA Evidence, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA ($389,621)
    The goal of this project is to test a new method for determining the time-since-deposition for epithelial cell populations that can be used for a variety of sample types including trace biological evidence. Establishing the age of evidentiary samples is a critical need for forensic laboratories in order to provide probative context to DNA profiling results. Currently, few methods have been described for determining the age of epithelial cell samples and, of those methods, none have been validated for casework.

    Previous research from this group has established a novel workflow that analyzes the autofluorescence and morphological signatures of cell populations that vary with time following sample deposition. The primary advantage of this method for forensic casework is that all aspects of the workflow are high-throughput and inherently non-destructive, making it ideal for evidence samples since these are typically compromised and low in template quantity. The goal of this project is to test time-since-deposition signatures for the most challenging and realistic sample types commonly encountered and optimize the method to increase the probative value of time estimates as well as the range of samples it can be used on.
  • Optimizing Analytical Parameters for Detection of Chronic and Single Dose Drug Exposure in Forensic Hair Analysis, Florida International University, Miami, FL ($431,892)
    In forensic toxicology, retrospective biomonitoring of drug use is most commonly done by analysis of hair. Advantages of hair include the ability to perform segmental analysis to determine timelines of use and/or abstinence. This is of particular significance in drug-facilitated crime (DFC), when blood and urine samples may not be available due to delayed reporting of the event. This project seeks to build upon previous Design of Experiments (DoE) work to further improve the performance and reliability of forensic hair testing. DoE studies will be conducted for additional drugs of abuse, with a particular focus on drugs associated with DFC.
  • An Image Analysis Framework for Objective Color Interpretation of Seized Drug Tests, Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, NC ($392,196)
    Color testing continues to be reported as the most common seized drug screening method because of the advantages of low cost, rapid results, and simple visual interpretation. However, limitations from human factors considerations, interferents, and manual interpretation and recording of results often lead to opportunities for user error and unreliable results. Advancements in digitization and digitalization could be used to address these limitations. This project will use an in-house software platform for image processing and objective color interpretation. Ultimately, this work aims to produce more reliable results by decreasing variabilities from human factor considerations that may impact interpretation and subjectivity, allowing for the storage of data for traceability, recall, or review, while requiring minimal changes to current workflows for more streamlined transition and implementation. 
  • Quantifying the Strength of Support in Fingerprint Casework Comparisons, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN ($609,185)
    Latent print examiners currently report their conclusions about whether a pair of fingerprints originated from the same source by using several broad categorical conclusions (i.e., Source Identification, Source Exclusion, or Inconclusive). Recent research has shown a mismatch between reported conclusions and the actual strength of the evidence, potentially leading to overstatement. This project seeks to quantify the strength of support, in terms of a likelihood ratio, for latent print comparisons across the range of conclusions. The researchers propose to calibrate the conclusion scale against the distribution of responses by examiners to a set of benchmark latent print pairs. This could allow for the method to be adopted into casework and may be generalizable to other forensic pattern comparison disciplines.
  • Accuracy, Efficacy, and Reproducibility of Muzzle-to-Target Distance Determination using Gunshot Residue, Noblis, Reston, VA ($872,282)
    Estimating muzzle-to-target distance using gunshot residue can be important in determining manner of death (e.g., suicide vs. homicide) or in weighing competing testimony about a shooting event. Nevertheless, the accuracy and reliability of these determinations are not well understood. This project will convene a working group to build consensus toward standardization of methods and generate a publicly accessible dataset of reference samples at known discharge distances. The centerpiece of the project is a “black box” study to measure how often practicing examiners get the answer correct, if the distance ranges they report are narrow enough to be useful, and how often their answers agree with each other.
  • Mechanics of Retinal Hemorrhage in Abusive Head Trauma, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT ($604,409)
    Pediatric abusive head trauma cases are some of the most challenging cases to investigate, and account for one-third of all child abuse deaths. Abusive head trauma can result in many injuries, including retinal hemorrhage; however, retinal hemorrhage may also be observed in accidental trauma. This project will investigate the mechanics of retinal hemorrhage and quantify forces required to cause such trauma. This fundamental research will provide a foundation to differentiate accidental vs. intentional head trauma resulting in retinal hemorrhage.
  • Developing and Validating Standards for Dental Cementum Age-at-Death and Season-of-Death Estimation, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Edinburg, TX ($467,325)
    Assessing biological profile information (sex, population affinity, age, and stature) of skeletal remains is an essential task to aid in the identification of those remains and facilitate matching of an unknown individual to a reported missing person. Determining age-at-death is a key biological parameter to assist in identification of the remains; however, many methods to assess age-at-death have poor correlation between age and predicted skeletal degenerative changes. This project investigates a novel method to estimate age-at-death by analyzing dental cementum. Currently, cementum age-at-death estimation is the routine method for age determination of non-human mammals, and the researchers propose to investigate if this method can be adapted for human age-at-death estimations.

Access the full list of new awards.

Access NIJ’s Forensic Science Strategic Research Plan.

Date Published: November 3, 2023