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Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Holds Second Hearing on Forensic Science

By Steve Pierson posted 04-03-2012 12:49

Chairing his second hearing on the science in forensic science in five months, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John D. Rockefeller declared, "Putting more “science” into forensic science is one of the Commerce Committee’s top priorities this year."

The witnesses for the hearing - titled The Science and Standards of Forensics - were NIST Director Pat Gallagher, NSF Director Subra Suresh, and Eric Lander, President of MIT Broad Institute and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Here are some of the highlights of the hearing for me. If you have time though, watch the webcast because it covers lots of good ground on the needs in forensic science reform and the roles for NIST, NSF, and DOJ, and the interactions between the practicing forensic science community and the scientific community. Please feel free to share yours in the Comment space below (for ASA members who are signed in -- others can email me their highlights).
  • Besides Chairman Rockefeller's statement already quoted and the fact that this is his second hearing in five months, the chairman said he hopes to have a forensic science bill in April. 
  • Senator Boozman is also very committed to this topic. He held a roundtable on the topic the week prior to the hearing that included Gallagher, NIJ Director Laub and others. Chairman Rockefeller noted the vigor with which Senator Boozman looked into forensic science issues.
  • Eric Lander gave an excellent explanation of why more science is needed is some parts of forensic science. See his testimony that starts at 26:09 in the video and his exchanges with Chairman Rockefeller starting at 52:09 and continuing through the end of the hearing. Some key quotes include:
    • "DNA fingerprinting was put on firm foundation – through a robust collaboration of law enforcement on the one hand and independent scientists on the other." (written testimony; p. 3)   
    • "The goal is not to have a perfect technology but to have a technology where we understand what it is good for and what's its weaknesses are." 33:57
    • "we often lack objective standards for declaring what's a match..." (32:40)
    • The solution is "getting a collaboration between the scientific community and the law enforcement community ... This can't be done within the Department of Justice alone ... the people who are practicing a technology and using it day-by-day in law enforcement and can't be the people who can stand back and objectively say, what's wrong with it... You can't have the same community both be the advocacy users and the skeptics" (starting 34:29)
    • "With regard to setting the standards in forensic science, there's no doubt that DOJ clearly has the central role in identifying the most important needs and promoting the widespread adoption of the standards. But there's also no doubt in my mind that NIST should clearly take the laed identifying where the gaps in the research are, where the weaknesses are ... Each needs to lead in its own distinctive domain... NSF has a critical role to play in supporting basic research underlying forensic science" (starting 35:32) 
  • Responding to a question from Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico (the 3rd Senator attending the hearing) about any progress since the 2009 Strengthening Forensic Science report, Director Gallagher stated (at 74:22) "if you look at the 15 or 16 areas underneath, they have spurned probably the most active interagency process I have seen in my 18 years in government. In fact, what is striking, it is much more broader than just federal involvement ..."
  • Director Gallagher detailed NIST's long history with forensic-science-related work, including with the FBI.
  • Based on a search for the word "forensic" in the NSF database, Director Suresh estimated that NSF had supported $50 million on forensic-science-related research for fiscal years 2009-2011.

For information on the positions of the American Statistical Association on forensic science, see the blog entry, ASA President Sends Letters to Senate Committee Chairmen on Forensic Science Reform, and the related links and comment therein. On March 22, ASA E.D. Ron Wasserstein urged support for $5 million in the FY13 budget request for NIST to do forensic science measurement and standards work in his oral testimony before the House Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations subcommittee.