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AAAS Reinforces Need for Use of Proven Science in DOJ Forensics

Visit the AAAS Force for Science website to follow the latest updates related to AAAS advocacy activities.

In a public comment sent to the Department of Justice on June 9 regarding the importance of advancing forensic science, AAAS and three other science organizations stated that “not only are people’s lives at stake, society’s faith in the American justice system is at risk.” | franz12/Adobe Stock

In response to a Department of Justice request for public comment on advancing forensic science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with the American Chemical Society, Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, has submitted comments that highlight the need for a transparent and independent review of forensic science techniques to ensure that “rigorous science is used in convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent.”

AAAS and its partners remind DOJ that “the reliability and validity of many forensic investigative and prosecutorial practices have not been established on sound scientific bases.” The comment further asks DOJ, and stakeholders in the public and private sector, to “make progress on identifying the scientific and technical gaps that exist in our knowledge base and pursue the scientific investigations necessary to close those gaps.”

The comment emphasizes the need for an independent and transparent committee or forum to provide advice on forensics analysis to the Attorney General, federal laboratories, and Congress. According to the comment signatories, such an entity should maintain a broad representation of forensic science stakeholders representing policy, practice, and research; transparency and openness to public comment; an advisory role to the DOJ; partnerships with federal science agencies; and a public forum for discussing the needs of all forensic science disciplines and encouraging the development of strategic plans and research agendas to address those needs.

The comment suggests that such an advisory committee should first be tasked with a thorough, independent, external review to identify which aspects of a forensic method are based on solid science that is acceptable not only to forensic practitioners but also to academic or other scientists; areas of forensic practice that are unreliable and/or invalid; and a research agenda that explicitly states what issues in any particular forensic discipline require further study for improving practice based on sound science.

“Citizens of the United States must have confidence that the criminal justice system is fair and not stacked against any citizen,” the joint society comment reads.

The request for public comment came after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the National Commission on Forensic Science would not be renewed at the end of its second two-year term. Sessions has also suspended a review of testimony by Federal Bureau of Investigations experts related to forensic techniques. In an April 10 statement, Sessions said he would ask an internal task force, including a to-be-appointed Senior Forensic Advisor, to develop a strategic plan that would “increase capacity of forensic science providers, improve the reliability of forensic analysis, and permit reporting of forensic results with greater specificity.”

Both a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report and a 2016 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report exposed major gaps in the scientific basis of commonly used forensic analysis techniques and a lack of strong standards for needed research.

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