Jose Almirall, the director of FlU’s International Forensic Research Institute, was chosen to run the newly created Center for Advanced Research in Forensic Science.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an established platform that enables industrially relevant, pre-competitive research via multi-member, sustained partnerships among industry, academia and government. The program is called the Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers—and it just added the first forensic science center to its list of about 75 centers around the country. 

The Center for Advanced Research in Forensic Science (CARFS) is a multi-university center with two research sites—one at Florida International Institute and a second at the University of South Alabama, with affiliate sites at Northeastern University, George Washington University and Texas A&M. Started in August 2017, CARFS tackles applied research—or as Jose Almirall, the center’s director, explains it, the faculty of about 40 take a “curiosity-driven discovery that occurred in the lab and push toward application of the needs of the user community.”

Normally, NSF funds curiosity-driven research, which is inherently high-risk—more often than not ending in a published paper rather than a physical product. But CARFS’ mission is the opposite.

“It’s part of NSF’s way to fund innovation and commercialization of basic research,” Almirall, also the director of FIU’s International Forensic Research Institute, told Forensic Magazine. “This is meant to propel an idea, an innovation, an invention forward into the hands of the people that need it most.”

The structure of the center is one that has served NSF well for the last three decades, but has been almost exclusively used in engineering centers. Utilizing the formula in a forensic science center—the first of its kind—is new for NSF. 

CARFS collaborates with industry partners who pay an annual $25,000 fee to become members. Membership affords partners the opportunity to play a role in which research projects get funded through the center. At a twice-annual meeting, CARFS faculty present their research ideas, and the industry partners cast their vote for which projects should be pursued.

“All of our members have a stake in forensic science research, be it the FBI laboratory, the Dubai police or companies like Agilent Technologies,” Almirall explained. “We have 20 partners who help address the research needs of the overall forensic user community.”

An additional advantage industry partners are granted is royalty-free access to any intellectual property that results from the funding. For example, if there is a project that is funded by the center and a faculty member makes a discovery that is patentable, all of the members who are interested can gain access to that invention royalty-free. Normally, organization do not agree to give away intellectual property readily, but it is a stipulation each member university must agree to before taking part in the center. 

“For $25,000, you are basically buying $500,000 worth of research a year, because NSF matches the funding that the industry partners bring to the table,” Almirall said.

That half a million dollar figure comes from the 19 research projects currently ongoing in the center, as agreed upon by industry partners in the August 2017 kickoff meeting. 
The projects range from forensic molecular biology to impression analysis, and everything in between. For example, one forensic psychology project is examining the contextual bias of forensic scientists themselves. It is a partnership between a large Florida forensic lab and one of the center’s psychology professors, funded by a federal agency. 

Epigenetics is another area the center focuses on. A current research project has faculty attempting a technique to determine age at death just from the teeth of a cadaver, for those cases when other physical evidence is lacking. 

Still other faculty members are examining rapid DNA and 25-minute PCR analysis; in addition to those working with microfluidic devices in order to miniaturize tests, including drug and explosion detection. Identifying people by their scent is also a project of interest, as is the construction of multiple databases that can, eventually, be used to improve the interpretation of forensic evidence. 

There’s also a group of researchers at the University of South Alabama and Texas A&M that focus on digital forensics and data analysis.

For now, CARFS faculty will continue their research before the next meeting in March, when new and old proposals are brought to the table for industry partners to vote on. 
Almirall said both he and NSF expect growth in the number of partners that buy into the center, as well as the number of university faculty that participate—possibly even in the number of member universities. 

“That’s why NSF provides funding in three phases, each equaling 5 years,” Almirall explained. With just seven months under its belt, there’s plenty of room for growth at CARFS.