Sunday, July 15, 2012

New federal legislation would pump $300 million into basic research, standards development for forensic science

The Nature News blog on Friday brought details of new federal legislation to fund  research and improve standards in forensic science, at least if Congress is willing to put up $300 million over the next five years, a fact which I hope doesn't stall this much needed investment in one of government's primary functions:
A piece of legislation proposed yesterday seeks to end wrongful convictions through better forensic science.
House and Senate Democrats say the Forensic Science and Standards Act would spur additional research and higher standards in forensic work.

“To ensure justice is being served, we want law enforcement and forensic practitioners to work alongside scientists and researchers to make sure that forensic evidence stands up to scientific rigor,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in an official statement.

The bill calls for the creation of a forensic science committee chaired by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), which would assess how to best handle material from a crime scene, for example, and issue guidelines. Meanwhile, basic research into new forensic science tools and techniques might fall under the guise of a proposed National Forensic Science Coordinating Office, housed at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Over the next five years, the bill would provide $200 million in grants for forensic science research, and $100 million for the development of forensic science standards.
Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Heaven knows, though, if a spending bill that size(virtually a rounding error in D.C. these days) sponsored by two Democrats will have a chance in the next Congress. ¿Quien sabe? It probably wouldn't be wise to start counting the money just yet, but it got Grits wondering: Which Texas universities might be in a position to perform research under such federal grants?

Sam Houston State (in Huntsville) and Texas State (in San Marcos) both have active forensics programs, as does Prairie View A&M. In Lubbock, Texas Tech has a relatively new Institute for Forensic Science. The University of North Texas (in Denton) has a forensics program. Texas A&M has a relatively new Forensic and Investigative Sciences program; it's not large, graduating just nine students this spring, but it could be a vehicle through which to receive federal research funding. Another outlier may be Baylor: Somewhat tellingly, they used to have a forensic-science track, but merged it with Anthropology once Texas state law required accreditation and the school wouldn't spend the money (as A&M did this year) to bring the program up to accredited standards. Who else am I missing, gentle readers, help me out ... what Texas universities might be in a position to perform some of this primary research?

Because of funding sources, most Texas university forensic programs, from what I know - with a few notable exceptions like the "body farms" at SHSU and Texas State - seem focused more on training forensic technicians than performing primary research. Indeed, it may be that scientists from more traditional scientific fields end up with the lion's share of NSF research funds since they're more immediately equipped to perform primary research and can readily apply their techniques to forensics, treating it as a subset of chemistry, biology, statistics, etc.. That's certainly what the authors of the National Academy of Sciences' 2009 report on forensics were hoping would happen, applying the scientific method to common forensic practices which in some cases have never been verified by science.

In any event, if the bill passes, a nine-figure influx of federal funding into the forensics field would provide impressive, near-term opportunities for university researchers positioned to take advantage of it.

Ed. note: The original piece was edited to correct the bill authorship.


Arce said...

Politicians of every stripe should support this bill as it will save lives from being destroyed by false charges and convictions, save money by focusing investigations on the perpetrators rather than the innocents, and help to ensure that the perpetrators are found and denied the opportunity to continue committing crimes. A triple play for justice and economic efficiency.

Anne Roberts said...

Well, let's hope that something really fruitful will grow out of $300 million. I know it's for the better and let us hope that it will truly be useful