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Policy

U.S. Justice Department ends forensic science advisory panel

Commission was aimed at improving reliability of discipline

by Andrea Widener
April 13, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 16

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week that he is shuttering the National Commission on Forensic Science.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) created the commision in 2013 to improve the reliability of forensic science. Its members included prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, forensic lab heads, and independent scientists, among others.

“I’m disappointed,” said chemist Suzanne Bell, a West Virginia University forensic science researcher who was a member of the commission. “There is a lot of work that was left undone.”

Over three years of meetings, the commission produced 43 consensus reports suggesting changes to improve forensic science, both in the courtroom and in the lab. Among the most important was a proposal that forensic laboratories be accredited and that forensic scientists agree to a set of ethics guidelines.

The commission’s charter was set to be renewed on April 23, but Sessions said he would instead bring forensic science review inside DOJ. That flies against recommendations in several critical reports on the discipline that forensic science should be more independent. Those reports concluded that much of forensic science is not supported by actual research. ACS, which publishes C&EN, and other organizations have expressed similar concerns.

NIST set up a large forensic research review system, called the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC), to bring more rigor to forensic research. Although OSAC is independent from the commission, it is funded by DOJ, so it is unclear whether OSAC’s work can continue.

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