The National Institute of
Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced a competition to create a
Forensic Science Center of Excellence dedicated to collaborative,
interdisciplinary research. The center’s mission will be to establish a
firm scientific foundation for the analytic techniques used in two
important branches of forensic science, pattern evidence and digital
The seminal 2009 National Research Council report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States – A Path Forward
called for a thorough examination of the techniques used in forensic
analysis to better understand their strengths and limitations. It also
called for establishing scientifically rigorous standards and
practices, including the development of tools and methods to better
standardize analytical protocols.
Forensic investigations involve the collection of evidence,
measurements of the evidence, analysis of those measurements and the
determination of conclusions of known validity. One important goal is to
develop so-called “probabilistic methods”—techniques that produce a
quantifiable assessment of the likelihood that a given method produced a
correct result. Forensic DNA analyses, for example, typically report
the probability that an apparent match between two separate samples
could come about by chance.
The new NIST-sponsored center will focus on developing probabilistic
methods for dealing with pattern evidence and digital evidence.
Pattern evidence encompasses much of what is typically thought of as
forensic evidence: fingerprints, shoeprints, tire marks, tool marks,
shell casing or bullet striations—anything that relies on comparing two
sets of markings. Digital evidence includes such things as the data on
cellphones or personal computers.
The planned center will work on scientific advances in probabilistic
methods and information technology tools, as well as the necessary
infrastructure to educate and train forensic science practitioners in
using the new methods. The center will help expand NIST’s expertise in
the field and promote interactions between NIST, academia and various
stakeholders in the forensic science community.
This Center of Excellence is one of several NIST plans to establish
to provide an interdisciplinary environment where researchers from
NIST, academia, industry and government can collaborate on emerging
areas of basic and applied research and innovations in measurement
science. On Dec. 3, 2013, NIST announced the establishment of a Center for Hierarchical Materials Design (CHiMaD) under a consortium led by Northwestern University that will pursue advanced materials research. A second NIST Center of Excellence to be focused on community disaster resilience is the subject of a current competition.