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Supporting Forensic Science Is a Priority at the National Institute of Justice


I have dedicated my life to understanding and preventing violence. From my training as a physician, working on violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control, and now at NIJ, I have seen the contribution of science to our understanding of how to prevent and address violence and its consequences.

NIJ helped changed the landscape of forensic science through our support of research and development to advance the collection and analysis of forensic DNA. Now we are poised to do the same for other forensic disciplines.

Since coming to NIJ, I have an even greater appreciation for the role forensic science plays in the criminal justice system. Forensic science provides the scientific underpinnings of investigations and prosecutions. It helps develop investigative leads, prosecute the guilty, and exonerate the innocent. Forensic science also is a powerful crime prevention tool. When forensic science is used to successfully apprehend, prosecute, and convict those committing crimes, it helps take those individuals off the street and helps prevent their commission of future crimes.

NIJ is the single largest support agency in the United States in terms of funding for laboratory capacity enhancement; technical assistance through direct funding to law enforcement agencies, forensic laboratories, and medical examiners and coroners; and funding for the only extramural grant program in the nation dedicated to forensic science research, development, and evaluation.

We understand that this is a pivotal time for forensic science, and we know that the need to strengthen research and practice, particularly in fields beyond DNA analysis, has been highlighted in reports and news coverage. We also recognize the challenges of satisfying the increasing demand for forensic analysis and reducing the growing backlogs of evidence while keeping up with the latest advances — delays in processing evidence delays the administration of justice.

Just as there is a need to strengthen and sustain medical research to help cure disease, there is a need to strengthen and sustain research in the forensic science. We need innovative solutions to the issues facing forensic practitioners and the criminal justice system as a whole. Only through such research can we develop highly-discriminating, accurate, reliable, cost-effective, and rapid methods for the identification, analysis, and interpretation of physical evidence.

In 2002, Congress approved NIJ to administer the first federal funds to help reduce the backlogs of evidence in crime labs. We knew that it would take more than providing funding to crime laboratories through grant programs.

We understood that while DNA and other forensic disciplines were, and would continue to be, the most significant evidence to aid the criminal justice system, cutting-edge research in new technologies and techniques, as well as the support of validation studies, and development of applied solutions, would all be critical pieces to reducing the backlogs of evidence.

As the only federal agency with a focus on developing and implementing innovative solutions for DNA testing in forensic laboratories, NIJ played an invaluable role in the impact modern DNA analysis has had on the criminal justice system. Advances in forensic DNA have undoubtedly changed how cases are investigated and how forensic evidence is interpreted.

NIJ helped changed the landscape of forensic science through our support of research and development to advance the collection and analysis of forensic DNA. Now we are poised to do the same for other forensic disciplines.

We remain steadfast in helping to strengthen the forensic science enterprise and restore trust in the scientific underpinnings of the varied forensic science disciplines. We have provided more than $175 million since 2009 to leading researchers to help reach those goals.

In 2015, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released the NIJ-commissioned report Support for Forensic Science Research: Improving the Scientific Role of the National Institute of Justice.[1] The NAS found that NIJ has made considerable progress in meeting the agency’s mission to advance the sciences that comprise forensic science.

They noted that “NIJ has a unique and critical role” among the diverse federal agencies working to impact the progress of forensic science because NIJ focuses on forensic science research and development, unlike the other agencies. The NAS affirmed that NIJ should continue on its current path and provide a plan for building on its progress by taking strategic steps to improve its “capacity to support high-quality forensic science research.” The NAS also 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.”

To improve and advance the practice of forensic science, it is imperative that technologies and methodologies be adopted in forensic testing. One strategy NIJ has taken to address this need is through its support of the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence. The Center is charged with facilitating the transfer of technology, methodology, and best practices into forensic laboratories in order to improve the practice of forensic science.

I am also happy to announce that NIJ implemented two new programs this year.

The first is focused on strengthening the medical examiner-coroner system in the United States. In response to several recent reports developed through national initiatives dedicated to improve the quality and practice of medical examiner and coroner services, NIJ will provide funding to:

  • Support forensic pathology fellowships to increase the number and quality of board-certified forensic pathologists.
  • Provide the resources necessary for medical examiner and coroner offices to achieve accreditation.

The second new program is the Forensic DNA Laboratory Efficiency Improvement and Capacity Enhancement Program. We created this program to improve DNA evidence processing, including enhancing other disciplines, practices, and physical areas of the laboratory that impede efficient DNA evidence processing.

As the Acting NIJ Director, I remain committed to a sustained effort that recognizes research and development as a long-term solution while providing support to forensic laboratories, law enforcement agencies, as well as medical examiners and coroners to address the immediate concerns of enhancing capacity and efficiency.

[note 1] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2015). Support for Forensic Science Research: Improving the Scientific Role of the National Institute of Justice. Committee on Strengthening Forensic Science at the National Institute of Justice. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.