On January 11, 2022, NIJ announced $1.3 million in funding to support 5 new projects under its Research and Evaluation for the Testing and Interpretation of Physical Evidence in Publicly Funded Forensic Laboratories (Public Labs R&E) program. Through its funding of forensic science grants, NIJ, a component of the Office of Justice Programs, continues to improve the examination and interpretation of physical evidence across the community of practice and supports the development of new knowledge and tools to address the challenges of crime and justice in the United States.
“These awards offer unique opportunities to assess emergent technologies in crime labs” said Lucas Zarwell, director of NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences. “NIJ appreciates the direct involvement of crime laboratories in research projects and encourages these types of future collaborations and commitment to strengthening the forensic sciences.”
Funding Highlights for Fiscal Year 2021
Since 2015, NIJ has invested over $9 million in 34 projects under its Public Labs R&E program. The program was developed specifically to enable research at public forensic laboratories in order to identify efficient, accurate, reliable, and cost-effective methods. The goal is to use evaluation and improvement of existing laboratory protocols, or the comparison of an existing protocol to an emerging method, to develop techniques or protocols that can be shared with the forensic community and benefit or aid decision making by lab directors.
Projects funded in fiscal year 2021:
Grantee: Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, New York, NY
Description: As DNA STR identity testing technology has increased in sensitivity, a corresponding need to identify the source of an individual’s DNA profile is becoming more important. For example, knowing that a profile came from semen, saliva, or blood gives additional context to a case. Current serology methods, with the exception of microscopic identification of sperm, are presumptive, and do not carry the scientific weight, and therefore evidentiary significance, of confirmatory tests. This project aims to perform a thorough and statistically rigorous validation of a confirmatory body fluid assay.
Grantee: Houston Forensic Science Center, Inc., Houston, TX
Description: Forensic firearms examination is at the cusp of a transition from 2D to 3D imaging. 3D imaging holds promise for producing more objective, interchangeable data, but some aspects have yet to be rigorously tested in practice. This project will test, among several forensic labs, whether the 3D surface images collected from different types of instruments leads to similar conclusions, both by human examiners and automated algorithms. It will also test whether 3D image data can help reduce inconclusive calls by examiners.
Grantee: Maryland State Police, Pikesville, MD
Description: The persistent presence and emergence of novel psychoactive substances (NPS) make efficiencies in workflow, particularly in screening, are more critical than ever as forensic laboratories struggle to keep up with the trends. This project will expand on previously funded NIJ work by developing a modified workflow that does not rely on direct analysis in real time (DART) technology that may not be available at many public laboratories, as well as developing additional gas chromatography- mass spectrometry (GC-MS) methods to more fully capture the wide variety of drug classes.
Grantee: North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC
Description: Examination of soil evidence can help test whether a piece of evidence could have originated from a specific location, or help to guide an investigation toward geographic areas of interest. This project will test the incorporation of additional quantitative methods of analysis into the current standard protocols, to see whether they allow examiners to differentiate challenging samples. These new methods include characterization of the biological content of soils.
Grantee: University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth, TX
Description: Recent surveys of DNA testing laboratories in the U.S. estimate that half are using a Probabilistic Genotyping software for complex DNA mixtures. The most popular software used in the U.S. is STRmix, currently implemented in 63 laboratory systems. By using more information from the crime scene profile, laboratories can examine samples that were previously uninterpretable using a binary approach resulting in additional profiles being submitted to and searched in CODIS. However, the issue of how reliable (having a low likelihood ratio) the results are for these difficult mixtures continues to be a difficult issue for laboratories. This investigation will yield metrics that can be used to improve the ability to report and testify to low likelihood ratios.