The approved standard has the ponderous name of ASTM E2329−14 Standard Practice for Identification of Seized Drugs. To my eye, it looks like an odd choice for the first (and thus far, only) entry in the OSAC Registry of Approved Standards. Why so?
For one thing, this one standard itself seems to approve of nine other ASTM standards -- none of which have been vetted by OSAC. Second, the FSSB approved the standard over objections from two out of the three OSAC "resource committees" -- its Legal Resources Committee and its Human Factors Committee. 2/ Third. the standard permits definitive conclusions based on standardless, subjective assessments of botanical specimens. Fourth, without discussing or citing any studies of error probabilities for the methods involved, the standard states or suggests that false-positive errors will not occur. Thus, an earlier posting tartly contrasted some of the language in the Standard to the admonition in the 2009 report of the National Research Council Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community that "[a]ll results for every forensic science method should indicate the uncertainty in the measurements that are made, and studies must be conducted that enable the estimation of those values."
On March 17, 2016, more than two months after the NIST-created OSAC adopted this first standard, NIST issued a public statement disavowing the standard as written because "concerns have been raised that some of the language in the standard is not scientifically rigorous." 3/ Like the National Research Council, NIST appreciates that "no measurement, qualitative or quantitative, should be characterized as without the risk of error or uncertainty." 4/ The statement adds that "NIST and the FSSB have independently asked that ASTM review the language."
The FSSB's action is, in a way, quite puzzling. Why would the FSSB want the organization that already wrote and approved the standard that the FSSB reviewed and adopted as a registry-ready, gold standard to "review" the FSSB-approved standard? It is not as if some new scientific research suddenly undermined the standard, requiring it to be revised. And even if new information had surfaced after the FSSB voted, the appropriate response would have been to take it down until the issue could be resolved.
Moreover, why would NIST and the FSSB "independently" ask for ASTM review when the subcommittee that wanted the standard on the registry already had promised to secure revisions through ASTM. The record before the FSSB included the following response to criticisms filed by the Legal Resource Committee:
Does the fact that NIST and the FSSB have added their voices to that of the OSAC Subcommittee on Seized Drugs mean that revisions that clearly should have been made before posting a standard to the repository will occur any sooner? And what can justify leaving a standard that admittedly needs "clarification" on the registry pending the requisite rewriting? Cannot laboratories continue to use the ASTM standard to guide them just as they did before the OSAC registry existed?
Whatever the answers to these questions may be, NIST's reservations about the first OSAC standard, although not spelled out in full, were the subject of questions at a recent meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science. On March 21, 2016, Commissioner Marc LeBeau asked presenters from NIST whether NIST planned to post statements of agreement as well as disagreement for every future OSAC-approved standard. I cannot locate a transcript or videotape of the meeting, but my recollection is that the answer was essentially "no."
No doubt, NIST hopes that the kerfuffle over ASTM E2329−14 is one off, but the apparent inclination of OSAC subcommittees to try to import unimproved ASTM standards into the registry does not bode well. The latest example is ASTM E2388-11 Standard Guide for Minimum Training Requirements for Forensic Document Examiners. It is up for consideration as an OSAC standard (and for public comment during the next couple of weeks) even though OSAC has no approved standard on what the document examiners are expected to do once they are trained.
Disclosure and disclaimer: I am a member of the OSAC Legal Resource Committee. The information and views presented here do not represent those of, and are not necessarily shared by, NIST, OSAC, any unit within these organizations, or any other organization or individuals.
- See OSAC Subcommittee and Scientific Area Committee (SAC) Chairs, https://rticqpub1.connectsolutions.com/content/connect/c1/7/en/events/event/shared/1187757659/speaker_info.html?sco-id=1187765255 ("OSAC is part of an initiative by NIST and the Department of Justice to strengthen forensic science in the United States. The organization is a collaborative body of more than 500 forensic science practitioners and other experts who represent local, state, and federal agencies; academia; and industry. NIST has established OSAC to support the development and promulgation of forensic science consensus documentary standards and guidelines, and to ensure that a sufficient scientific basis exists for each discipline.").
- The third resource committee, the Quality Infrastructure Committee (QIC), does not seem to comment on the substance of proposed standards.
- NIST Statement on ASTM Standard E2329-14, Mar. 17, 2016, http://www.nist.gov/forensics/nist-statement-on-astm-e2329-14.cfm
- That said, the NIST statement cautions that "It is important to note that NIST is not contesting results obtained from seized evidence using the standard." Id.