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This article is from the In-Depth Report Osama bin Laden: The Science of His End

Forensic science braces for change

FBI laboratory chief is optimistic despite severe criticism and challenges ahead.

By Laura Spinney

As the White House prepares its response to a damning report into the state of forensic science in the United States, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory, Chris Hassell, says that forensic scientists need to invest more in the validation of new technologies and work more closely with the crime labs that implement those technologies, if forensics is to shake off its poor public image.

Speaking at the 4th International Crime Science Conference in London last week, Hassell described the gap between basic research and its application in solving crimes as the "valley of death" because "nobody wants to pay for it, nobody really wants to do it." That gap needs to be filled by thorough testing of new techniques before they are released to crime labs, said Hassell, who is a chemist with a background in this sort of validation.

Lack of validation was one of the criticisms leveled at many forensic disciplines in a report published by the US National Research Council (NRC) in February 2009.

Hassell, who replaced forensic dentist Joseph DiZinno as FBI laboratory chief six months before the report came out, said that excessively rigid policy had made bringing about changes at the laboratory difficult. For example, one of his laboratory's current research projects concerns rapid DNA analysis that can potentially be performed at the crime scene or as soon as a suspect has been apprehended--rather than hours or days later at the laboratory. To be operationally useful, this technique will require some modification of quality assurance standards so that data can up uploaded into DNA databases more rapidly. But, said Hassell, "We've tried to make minor changes to the quality assurance standards recently in the States, and there has been a vociferous reaction on the part of the community. They don't want to change."

DNA analysis was one of the few technologies not to be found wanting by the NRC, and he believes that at the root of this reluctance to adapt is a fear of endangering DNA's "gold standard" status. "There is a perception that anything we do to transition that research might potentially risk our accreditation, and that's just nonsense."

Tried and tested?

Other techniques that might significantly boost law enforcers' ability to solve crimes are not getting into the field as quickly as Hassell would like. Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), for example, is a technique that potentially could allow investigators to work out where individuals have been because the ratio of isotopes of certain elements consumed in food varies depending on where it was grown, and can be detected in biological tissues.

James Fraser, director of the University of Strathclyde's Centre for Forensic Science in Glasgow and a past president of the UK's Forensic Science Society, told the conference that IRMS was potentially a very useful approach, but that it was a long way from being validated or ready for systematic use. That doesn't rule it out from being used at all, said Hassell. "It may not really hold up in court yet, but it could possibly be used to generate leads, maybe result in subpoenas, search warrants, other things that could be of value in an investigation," he said.

Putting a less than fully validated technique into the field has to be done "with eyes open," he said, but it is doable with the right checks and balances. One way he hopes to achieve this is by involving end users, the crime lab workers who implement the techniques, more in the validation process.

But forensic scientists are split over whether this is a good idea. Joseph Bono of Indiana University, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), says it is "crucial."

But Thomas Bohan, director of Portland, Maine-based consultants MTC Forensics and a past president of the AAFS, disagrees. The people who implement the techniques have neither the time nor, very often, the objectivity to be useful in validation, Bohan says. "The FBI fingerprint division for years has asserted that fingerprint identification has been validated by a hundred years of jury trials. They just don't get it," he says. "The best model for the validation work is DNA, which was delivered full-blown to the forensic labs after years of validation in university laboratories."

Bono feels that forensic scientists must bear some responsibility for not always getting their message across to judge and jury. "The science is good, but the ability of a scientist to operate in an arena like the courtroom is sorely lacking," he says.

A White House committee, the National Science and Technology Council, will report on the practicalities of implementing the NRC's recommendations by September 2011.

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