Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Whither OSAC? NIST's Plans for Forensic Science Standards and Research As Told to the NCFS

The National Commission on Forensic Science held its thirteenth and final meeting on Monday. The second speaker to discuss some of the administration's plans for improving forensic science was the Acting Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Dr. Kent Rochford. I edited and abridged the computer-generated transcript slightly. It includes a question from Commissioner Peter Neufeld. Finally, there is a question from Commissioner Jules Epstein to a Justice Department official about future funding for OSAC. I cannot promise riveting reading, but for anyone who wants to know what was said, here is most of it:
KENT ROCHFORD: I'd like to address the future of OSAC. OSAC was conceived under the 2013 MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] between NIST and the Department of Justice and established the Commission. The Department of Justice provides funding for the OSAC, which NIST cannot sustain on its own. The OSAC organization does not have term limits but does require funding to continue.

From the introduction of OSAC, NIST addressed the need to evolve and eventually spin off OSAC. We termed this “OSAC 2.0.” We have learned a lot from OSAC 1.0. Over the past years of operation, the organization has continued to mature as members of the group have come to a better appreciation of the standards development process. One example was seen in interested key researchers and scientists joining the FSSB [Forensic Science Standards Board]. Thank you for your assistance in supporting and strengthening the OSAC.

NIST is committed to improving OSAC, including the establishment of a clear model that will support these important goals. We are working to create a stable, sustainable operational model that provides independence from NIST. Internally a small group led by Rich Cavanaugh, who runs our special programs office, has been exploring model concepts for OSAC 2.0.

Each model is distinct yet consistent with the following goals: The new OSAC has to have a defined structure and authority. It needs to engage key stakeholders. We need to provide free access to our products. There has to be a smooth transition from the current OSAC that would create the potential for long-term sustainability. Currently, Rich's group has been looking at three models, exploring further. These involve creating federal and state partnerships that develop codes, standards, and model laws. Restructuring the OSAC so subcommittee functions are dispersed to standards development organizations, and the roles at the FSSB and SAC levels are changed to focus on quality of science and utility, respectively. And establishing a development and testing — a process we are starting, and we intend to engage the broader community to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of these possible approaches. So if you have questions about the OSAC 2.0, please reach out to Rich Cavanaugh.

I'd like to talk about NIST research efforts in forensic science. NIST remains committed to remaining its measurements and standards expertise to challenges in forensics. We played a role in strengthening forensic science since at least the 1920s. You may have seen the recent National Geographic article about William Souther, a physicist from NIST who played a role in numerous forensic cases during the 1930s, including the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping case. The current forensic research focuses include, DNA, digital fingerprint evidence, ballistics, statistics, toxins, and trace evidence. We plan to continue working these research areas as funding is available to do so. You will see an example of how research expertise provides benefit to the forensic science community when [Dr. Elham Tabassi] talks to you about development of an ISO standard on method validation.

Let me turn to technical merit review. This past September, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended an expanded role for NIST in assessing the scientific foundations and maturity of various forensic disciplines. We recognize the need for and the value of such studies and are exploring ways to conduct work in this area. Without additional funding recommended by PCAST, NIST cannot make large-scale commitments to technical merit review. We are planning an exploratory study to address concerns raised by PCAST regarding DNA mixtures. This will likely involve assessing the scientific literature, developing a detailed plan for evaluating scientific validity that would include probabilistic genotyping, and assigning interlaboratory studies to measure forensic laboratory performance of DNA interpretation. These laboratory studies would build upon DNA mixture studies conducted in 2003, 2005 in 2013. NIST has a history of involving external partners in his research and standard efforts and anticipate external and internal and international collaboration.

In closing, I want to personally thank you for your efforts on this Commission and your commitment to strengthening forensic science through your participation in the activities of this group. Your work is made a difference, and we are grateful for your service to the nation. Thank you.
PETER NEUFELD: The second question for Kent, when you talked about things NIST was doing, you mentioned your current evaluation of DNA mixtures. Your predecessor stated in response to this Commission making a recommendation that NIST take on the task of making an evaluation of foundational validity and reliability of different forensic methods that they intended to do a trial. They were going to start a trial in three different areas, and the other two areas in addition to the DNA were ballistics and bitemarks. We have been told at each meeting leading up to this meeting NIST was going ahead with those trials. I noticed you only mentioned DNA. Is it still the position of NIST that they will go ahead with the trial of some ballistics and bitemarks?

KENT ROCHFORD: We still continue to do the work on ballistics and bitemarks. Given the resources we have, we're going to do the trials of the interlaboratory studies with the DNA mixtures first. Right now, the PCAST report provided a number of trials we should take on [and] it is also recommending the funding to do this. Given our current funding, we intend to start with the DNA programs. As funding may become available, we can wrap up these others areas to include trials. Currently we are doing the internal work but do not right now have the bandwidth to do the ballistics trials.
JULES EPSTEIN: Good morning. *** The other substantive question is, can I get clarification on OSAC? Is it now the status there is currently no further funding for OSAC?


JULES EPSTEIN: Can we understand what is in the pipeline or the projected longevity at this moment or sustainability?

ANSWER: Right now we don't have a budget and we are in a continuing resolution. We just don't know the status so I really can't predict what it will look like.

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