Sunday, April 17, 2011

Does ASCLD Recognize the Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences?

The Crime Lab Minute is a weekly newsletter from ASCLD, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.1 The Minute includes synopses of “Journal articles/Law Reviews” that the group deems noteworthy, and this week’s Minute (April 15, 2011) includes the following entry:

Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences
P Margot –UCLA L. Rev., 2011

  • Asked to comment on a collective discussion paper by Jennifer L. Mnookin et al.,this Commentary identifies difficulties the authors encountered in defining or agreeing on the subject matter “forensic science” and its perceived deficiencies. They conclude that there is a need for a research culture, whereas this Commentary calls for the development of a forensic science culture through the development of forensic science education fed by research dedicated to forensic science issues. It is a call for a change of emphasis and, perhaps, of paradigm.

By ignoring two of the three parallel comments on the main article—and omitting a description of the article itself—the lab directors convey a distorted picture of the recent literature. As one author of the main article commented in an email to the other authors (including me), this oddly selective form of citation “may be in and of itself a symptom of a lack of research culture.” The consistent message of the series of essays from a diverse set of individuals concerned with improving forensic science is that, to quote Professor Margot, “forensic science needs a sound scientific structure.”2 Slanted newsletters are what one would expect from a “poor and immature profession.”3 The American Society of Crime Laboratories Directors can do better.

Excerpts from the abstracts of the main article and the commentary on it as well as most of the concluding paragraphs of Professor Margot’s more critical commentary follow:

Jennifer L. Mnookin et al., The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences, 58 UCLA L. Rev. 725 (2011)

  • This Article reflects an effort made by a diverse group of participants in these debates [abput forensic science evidence], including law professors, academics from several disciplines, and practicing forensic scientists, to find and explore common ground. . . . We all firmly agree that the traditional forensic sciences in general, and the pattern identification disciplines, such as fingerprint, firearm, toolmark, and handwriting identification evidence in particular, do not currently possess—and absolutely must develop—a well-established scientific foundation. This can only be accomplished through the development of a research culture that permeates the entire field of forensic science. . . . Sound research, rather than experience, training, and longstanding use, must become the central method by which assertions are justified. In this Article, we describe the underdeveloped research culture in the non-DNA forensic sciences, offer suggestions for how it might be improved, and explain why it matters.

Joseph P. Bono,4 Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences, 58 UCLA L. Rev. 781 (2011)

  • Finally, after hundreds of pages of “we know how to solve this problem” monologues, a learned treatise appears that goes beyond the NAS Report in addressing the need to strengthen forensic science. The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences . . . is one of the first publications to minimize the blame game . . . . This article successfully provides a root cause assessment of the salient issues we face today and contains solutions that those who care about forensic science should consider.

Nancy Gertner,5 Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences, 58 UCLA L. Rev. 789 (2011)

  • The National Academy of Sciences’ call for change in forensic sciences will not be successful until lawyers fairly bring these standards to the attention of the courts, and the judges, both district and appellate, rigorously enforce them.

Pierre Margot,6 Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences, 58 UCLA L. Rev. 795, 801 (2011)
  • It must be obvious by now that I agree with the authors that research is needed. A poor and immature profession can be the object of study, as proposed by the authors. But what will they do? Study of forensic science can identify shortcomings, such problems like bias, but it may not identify solutions so rapidly. Research in forensic science is sorely needed, but it should address primarily forensic science questions—not questions relating to the application of chemistry, biology, statistics, or psychology. This is how a discipline is built and progresses, and this is where academics should focus their questions. Until then, forensic science will remain a second-rate scientific endeavor and will suffer from continued and justified attacks. It is time that forensic science grows as a fully recognized discipline in its own territory. It should exist on equal terms with other disciplines. It can then cross-fertilize and adopt technological developments in other scientific disciplines, which may allow it to respond to legal demands on much more solid ground.


1. “ASCLD is “is a nonprofit professional society of crime laboratory directors and forensic science managers dedicated to providing excellence in forensic science through leadership and innovation. The purpose of the organization is to foster professional interests, assist the development of laboratory management principles and techniques; acquire, preserve and disseminate forensic based information; maintain and improve communications among crime laboratory directors; and to promote, encourage and maintain the highest standards of practice in the field.” About ASCLD,, last visited April 17, 2011.

2. Pierre Margot, Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences, 58 UCLA L. Rev. 795, 799 (2011)

3. Id. at 801.

4. President, American Academy of Forensic Sciences

5. Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts

6. Vice-Dean, Faculty of Law and Criminal Sciences; Director, School of Criminal Sciences; School of Forensic Science; University of Lausanne

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