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Forensic Science Strategic Research Plan, 2022-2026

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Date Published
June 20, 2022
Director La Vigne Discusses Forensic Research and Development at NIJ

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NIJ developed this Forensic Science Strategic Research Plan to communicate its research agenda and advance its forensic science research mission. The strategic priorities and objectives outlined in this plan closely parallel the opportunities and challenges faced by the forensic science community. This document should be of interest to crime laboratory and medicolegal death investigation professionals; researchers and technology developers (academia, government, and industry); the legal community (defense, prosecution, and judiciary); federal, state, local, tribal, and international partners; policymakers; and other stakeholders.

NIJ will continue to disseminate research findings resulting from this strategic research plan among these partners and constituent audiences to achieve the greatest impact over time.

NIJ's forensic science mission:

NIJ’s forensic science mission is to strengthen the quality and practice of forensic science through research and development, testing and evaluation, technology, and information exchange.

Research Partners and Shared Goals

NIJ and the broader community of interest recognize that forensic science research is a challenging endeavor that can only succeed through broad collaboration between government, academic, and industry partners. Forensic science practitioners are constantly presented with increasing demands for quality services in the face of diminishing resources. As part of its long-term strategy for success, NIJ actively seeks to partner practitioners with researchers to help develop solutions to these challenging issues. NIJ coordination and funding help these partnerships bear fruit.

NIJ and its partners have a shared goal of supporting a strong forensic science research enterprise. Building sustainable partnerships is of paramount importance, as is connecting academic, industry, federal, state, local, and international organizations that can help foster and coordinate research and development. To this end, NIJ collaborates with several outside agencies. NIJ works with the National Science Foundation (Center for Advanced Research in Forensic Science) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence and Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science), as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Research and Support Unit). View a summary of Federal Forensic Science Research and Development Programs.

Strategic Priority I: Advance Applied Research and Development in Forensic Science

The objective of NIJ’s applied research and development in forensic science is to meet the needs of forensic science practitioners. NIJ supports applied research and development that aids the forensic science community through the development of methods, processes, devices, and materials. Applied research and development may result in improved procedures or otherwise resolve current barriers. It may not always provide immediate solutions but can move the state of the art forward and optimize the implementation of available technologies.

Priority I Objectives

I.1. Application of Existing Technologies and Methods for Forensic Purposes

  • Tools that increase sensitivity and specificity of forensic analysis.
  • Methods to maximize the information gained from forensic evidence.
  • Nondestructive or minimally destructive methods that maintain evidence integrity.
  • Technologies to improve the identification and collection of evidence,
  • Machine learning methods for forensic classification.
  • Reliable and robust fieldable technologies.
  • Rapid technologies to increase efficiency.
  • Imaging technologies to visualize evidence.

I.2. Novel Technologies and Methods

  • Identification and quantitation of forensically relevant analytes (e.g., seized drugs, gunshot residue).
  • Differentiation techniques for biological evidence (e.g., body fluid identification).
  • Investigation of novel or nontraditional aspects of evidence (e.g., microbiome, nanomaterials).
  • Reliable and robust fieldable technologies.
  •  Increased efficiency of evidence analysis with rapid technologies.
  • Crime scene documentation and reconstruction technologies.

I.3. Methods To Differentiate Evidence From Complex Matrices or Conditions

  • Detection and identification of evidence during collection or analysis.
  • Differentiation of compounds or components of interest in complex matrices.
  • Identification of clandestine graves.

I.4. Technologies That Expedite Delivery of Actionable Information

  • Methods and workflows to enhance or inform investigations.
  • Enhanced data aggregation, integration, and analysis within and across datasets.
  • Expanded triaging tools and techniques to develop actionable results.
  • Technologies and workflows for forensic operations at the scene.

I.5. Automated Tools To Support Examiners’ Conclusions

  • Objective methods to support interpretations and conclusions.
  • Technology to assist with complex mixture analysis.
  • Evaluation of algorithms for quantitative pattern evidence comparisons.
  • Library search algorithms to assist in the identification of unknown compounds.
  • Systems that quantitatively weigh results when performing biological profile  analysis of unidentified human
  • remains.
  • Computational methods to support bloodstain pattern analysis.

I.6. Standard Criteria for Analysis and Interpretation

  • Standard methods for qualitative and quantitative analysis.
  • Evaluation of expanded conclusion scales.
  • Evaluation of the use of methods to express the weight of evidence (e.g., likelihood ratios, verbal scales).
  • Assessment of the causes and meaning of artifacts in a forensic context.

I.7. Practices and Protocols

  • Optimization of analytical workflows, methods, and technologies.
  • Effectiveness of communicating reports, testimony, and other laboratory results.
  • Implementation of new technologies and methods, including cost-benefit analyses.
  • Laboratory quality systems effectiveness.
  • Research regarding proficiency tests that reflect complexity and workflows.
  • Connectivity and standards for laboratory information management systems.

I.8. Databases and Reference Collections

  • Development of reference materials/collections.
  • Databases that are accessible, searchable, interoperable, diverse, and curated.
  • Databases to support the statistical interpretation of the weight of evidence.

Strategic Priority II: Support Foundational Research in Forensic Science

NIJ supports research to assess the fundamental scientific basis of forensic analysis. If forensic methods are demonstrated to be valid and the limits of those methods are well understood, then investigators, prosecutors, courts, and juries can make well-informed decisions. This can exclude the innocent from investigation and help
prevent wrongful convictions.

Priority II Objectives

II.1. Foundational Validity and Reliability of Forensic Methods

  • Understanding of the fundamental scientific basis of forensic science disciplines.
  • Quantification of measurement uncertainty in forensic analytical methods.

II.2. Decision Analysis in Forensic Science

  • Measurement of the accuracy and reliability of forensic examinations (e.g., black box studies).
  • Identification of sources of error (e.g., white box studies).
  • Research and evaluation of human factors.
  • Interlaboratory studies.

II.3. Understanding the Limitations of Evidence

  • Understanding the value of forensic evidence beyond individualization or quantitation to include activity level propositions.

II.4. Stability, Persistence, and Transfer of Evidence

  • Effects of environmental factors and time on evidence.
  • Primary versus secondary transfer.
  • Impact of laboratory storage conditions and analysis on evidence.

Strategic Priority III: Maximize the Impact of Forensic Science Research and Development

The ultimate goal of NIJ’s research and development is to make a positive impact on forensic science practice. For this to happen, the products of research and development must reach the community. These products include peer-reviewed publications, presentations, databases, patents and inventions, software, best practice guides, and more. Implementation of new technology and methods into practice can be aided by NIJ stewardship, in partnership with researchers and practitioners. This can ultimately result in better accuracy, increased efficiency,
and improved workflows.

Priority III Objectives

III.1. Disseminate Research Products to Communities of Interest

  • Communicate with new and existing audiences across diverse media.
  • Improve access to research publications (e.g., open access, public access).
  • Support data sharing and accessibility.

III.2. Support the Implementation of Methods and Technologies

  • Assist technology transition for NIJ-funded research and development.
  • Demonstrate, test, and evaluate new methods and technology.
  • Pilot implementation and adoption into practice.
  • Develop evidence-based best practices.

III.3. Assess the Impact of NIJ Forensic Science Programs

  • Identify and collect measures of program performance (e.g., publications, citations, patents).
  • Analyze program impact over time.
  • Act on findings to optimize program effectiveness.
  • Communicate findings to the public.

III.4. Examine the Role and Value of Forensic Science in the Criminal Justice System

  • Understand how forensic science impacts the criminal justice system.
  • Evaluate the implementation of new and innovative policies and practices.
  • Understand the costs and benefits of forensic science services.

Strategic Priority IV: Cultivate a Diverse, Highly Skilled Forensic Science Workforce

NIJ supports the development of current and future forensic science researchers and practitioners through laboratory and research experience. Student engagement and the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the forensic science workforce are critical elements of this effort. NIJ advocates for representation of a diverse range of perspectives in the forensic science community.

Priority IV Objectives

IV.1. Foster the Next Generation of Forensic Science Researchers  

  • Enrich undergraduate experiences.
  • Support graduate research in forensic science.
  • Provide postgraduate opportunities.
  • Support early-career new investigators.

IV.2. Facilitate Research Within Public Laboratories

  • Create opportunities for research.
  • Cultivate a workforce of researchers within public laboratories.
  • Promote partnerships with academia.

IV.3. Advance the Forensic Science Workforce

  • Assess and evaluate staffing and resource needs.
  • Examine the use and efficacy of forensic science training and certification programs.
  • Research best practices for recruitment and retention.
  • Support workforce development (e.g., leadership, public speaking, mentorship) and continuing education.
  • Evaluate the workforce and workforce pipeline.
  • Research the safety, wellness, health, and workplace needs of forensic practitioners.

IV.4. Implement a Process for Assessment, Outreach, and Sustainability for Diversity and Inclusion

  • Collect demographic data to assess diversity and inclusion in NIJ programs.
  • Identify and engage in actions to increase inclusivity.

Strategic Priority V: Coordinate Across the Community of Practice

The forensic science enterprise benefits from collaboration across academic, industry, and government sectors. NIJ serves as a coordination point within the forensic science community to help meet the challenges caused by high demand and limited resources.

Priority V Objectives

Objectives V.1. Assess and Address the Needs of the Field

  • Engage with forensic practitioners and laboratory leadership to understand their evolving needs.
  • Communicate engagement outcomes to researchers, educators, and policymakers.
  • Implement programs that address needs and build connections among stakeholders.

V.2. Engage Federal Partners To Maximize Resources

  • Understand agencies’ current activities and priorities.
  • Establish agreements and partnerships.
  • Coordinate to leverage agencies’ resources and strengths and avoid duplication.

V.3. Facilitate Information Sharing

  • Promote the sharing of information (e.g., data, methods, validation plans) among NIJ’s federal, state, and local partners.
  • Employ various platforms (e.g., symposia, webinars, working groups) for information sharing.
  • Serve as a central agency for the collection and distribution of information on evidence-based solutions.

Date Published: June 20, 2022