Kafadar Testifies Before Congress on Forensic Science Reform

American Statistical Association President Karen Kafadar testified on September 10 before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, speaking about her work on forensic science. The hearing marked 10 years since the publication of an influential report from the National Academies, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, which in 2009 sparked numerous efforts to address scientific deficiencies in the field. This week’s hearing focused on priorities for further improving the science used throughout the US judicial system.

Kafadar highlighted the ASA’s work to “promote the profession and practice of statistics to advance science, inform policy, and enhance statistical literacy to make the world a better place.” She also reviewed the  extensive work the ASA Advisory Committee on Forensic Science has done to support forensic science reform, including helping to draft a  2010 board statement endorsing the 2009 National Academies report and a 2018 statement of  Guidance on Statistical Statements for Forensic Evidence.

In her testimony, Kafadar noted the federal government has supported several initiatives over the last 10 years that have made progress in improving forensic science: the National Commission on Forensic Science (2013–2017); the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) creation of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (OSAC); and NIST’s funding of a Center for Excellence for research in the statistics and applications in forensic science (of which Kafadar is a co-director).

Kafadar also discussed the following four missing ingredients needed to fulfill the National Academies’ call for broad changes:

  • Centralized leadership for forensic science reform in the federal government
  • Studies confirming the validity and reliability of forensic disciplines by domain-specific scientists
  • Funding to support an independent agency and foundational studies
  • Guidance for courts on handling forensic evidence

Karen Kafadar Testifies

To address these needs, NIST should be the lead federal agency in forensic science reform, Kafadar said, and “arm’s-length researchers” who maintain a degree of independence from the current system should have greater representation within OSAC. She also recommended NIST consider funding a second center of excellence that could specialize in research for additional types of forensic evidence. Adopting these recommendations, she noted, would ultimately produce studies and statistical analyses courts could use to uphold high standards for forensic science.

Kafadar was the sole scientist testifying at the hearing. Other testimony was provided by a NIST program manager in the Office of Special Programs, the general counsel for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, and the crime lab director of the Idaho State Police Forensic Services.

Read Kafadar’s written testimony and watch a video of the full hearing.