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Strengthening Forensic Science at Its Foundations to Improve Public Safety


With National Forensic Science Week beginning on August 9, I can’t think of a better time to highlight the importance of NIJ’s investment in forensic science research and how that investment is improving our criminal justice system.

Since 2009, NIJ has supported forensic research with more than $127 million. That makes us a global leader in the advancement of forensic science.

You might ask, what exactly does “the advancement of forensic science” mean? While it’s tempting to talk in terms of “exciting discoveries,” advancing science is a slow and methodical process, but scientific breakthroughs are just around the corner.

Investing in research today is how we fulfill tomorrow’s promise to improve justice with more accurate methods and sophisticated technology in our crime labs.

It was research in years past that laid the groundwork for the tremendous advances and profound impact forensic science has had on the criminal justice system. New discoveries in forensic DNA analysis led to a paradigm shift in how crime labs analyze and interpret evidence. There was a time – not too long ago – when DNA was not routinely used to help solve crimes. 

Changes in science, of course, have brought new opportunities and challenges, including placing labs under relentless pressure to test millions of items of evidence every year.

NIJ remains committed to a strategy that couples rigorous research with capacity enhancement and technical assistance programs to serve the forensic science community. In addition to providing the field with improved technology and new techniques through research, NIJ has infused hundreds of millions of dollars into our nation’s crime labs to enhance capacity and reduce their backlogs of evidence. This approach helps address the immediate needs while we invest in long-term sustainable solutions to improve public safety and the administration of justice.

As NIJ’s forensic scientists are keen to remind me, forensic science is not itself a scientific discipline; it’s a collection of many disciplines — among them, chemistry, biology, physics, cognitive science, physical anthropology and engineering — applied to matters of law. Rigorous research in these diverse fields is strengthening the foundations of forensic science so investigators can understand how to interpret blood spatter patterns, understand the accuracy and reliability of certain methods, or determine the identity of an unknown suspect.

By supporting efforts in both basic and applied research, NIJ’s forensic science research program is growing the body of knowledge. We are bringing new techniques to crime solving and increasing the reliability and efficiency of forensic testing.

Among the wide array of NIJ-supported studies are projects to:

  • Demonstrate the potential to extend the timeline for collecting DNA after a sexual assault beyond the widely used 72-hour mark.
  • Develop a camera that uses multispectral and fluorescence imaging capabilities that could detect and identify fingerprints, body fluids and stains at crime scenes, making it easier for investigators to find and process evidence while minimizing evidence contamination.
  • Explore more effective ways to identify bodies, including mapping craniofacial features with 3-D imaging and using radiographs to more precisely estimate the age of death for juveniles.
  • Understand human factors, cognitive bias, and error rates in disciplines such as fingerprint analysis, firearms examinations, and handwriting comparisons.
  • Test a simple yet sophisticated device, consisting of a handheld fluorometer (built for about $45 with a 3-D printer), a smartphone and an online database, that could allow law enforcement to quickly identify illegal drugs in the field.
  • Improve the interpretation bloodstain pattern analysis by studying factors that can contribute to dramatically different spatter patterns, such as type of fabric, velocity and impact angle.

These projects are producing materials, devices, systems and methods with potential for forensic application, improving our understanding of the underlying sciences, and, ultimately, helping the public by advancing justice.

You can learn more about how forensic science R&D is making a difference in the safety of our nation in The Impact of Forensic Science Research and Development (pdf, 16 pages).