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WVU's Suzanne Bell is leading researchers across the country in advocating for independent research and assessment in forensic science. (Photo: Courtesy of West Virginia University)

As a critical component to the administration of justice, researchers are calling for more science in forensic science.

Led by Suzanne Bell, chair of the West Virginia University Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, a group of academic scientists who were members of the former National Commission on Forensic Science’s Sub-Committee on Scientific Inquiry and Research are urging the larger scientific community to advocate for independent research and assessment in forensic science. 

“We are asking the broader scientific community to advocate for their forensic colleagues,” Bell said. “Forensic science needs a champion.”

Bell and co-authors Sunita Sah (Cornell University), Thomas Albright (The Salk Institute for Biological Studies), James Gates Jr. (Brown University), Bonner Denton (University of Arizona) and Arturo Casadevall (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) published an article about these issues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on April 9. 

The group encouraged the U.S. Department of Justice to revisit a report produced by the National Research Council in 2009 entitled, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” This report urged the creation of an independent entity to lead forensic science reforms and helped drive the creation of the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2013. 

The DOJ declined to renew the commission in April 2017.  

“The National Commission on Forensic Science brought together a broad range of stakeholders and managed to forge consensus and make recommendations. In that respect, it was unique,” Bell said. “It came as close to fulfilling the spirit of the National Research Council recommendation as we have seen.” 

Federal support of forensic science resides in the DOJ, which is a prosecutorial agency. 

“This structure creates an inherent conflict of interest that can introduce bias. The role of the prosecution and defense is to win their case through competing arguments,” Bell said. “Scientific evidence and testimony is often part of these cases. Neither ‘side’ can or should be expected to evaluate underlying scientific integrity on its own merits.”

Bell and her colleagues also ask for support from the broader scientific community.  

“We point out that as science continues to advance, it becomes increasingly absurd to ask or expect lawyers, judges and juries to take sole responsibility for critically evaluating the quality and validity of scientific evidence and testimony,” Bell said. “The consequences of this disconnect impact individual lives and our society every day.”

“At the same time, we are asking the larger scientific community to embrace their forensic colleagues. An applied science is still science. We all must be champions of scientific independence to ensure that justice is served.”

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