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NIST to Establish Research Center of Excellence for Forensic Science

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A NIST Standard Reference Material 2460 "standard bullet" mounted on a blue stub. Each one has six signature markings typically found in a fired bullet. SRM 2460 is intended primarily for use as a check for crime laboratories to help verify that the computerized optical equipment for bullet imaging and profiling is operating properly.

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 evidence.

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.

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