Diverse Group of Leading Commentators on Forensic Science Jointly Conclude that Developing a Research Culture is Necessary to Secure the Future of Forensic Science

LOS ANGELES, CA, February 28, 2011 –  A remarkably diverse group of participants in the lively debates regarding forensic science evidence, including legal academics, psychologists and top-level practitioners, has just published a jointly-written article seeking to find consensus regarding the future of forensic science.   The article argues that forensic science sorely needs to create a “research culture,” focused on empiricism, transparency and an ongoing critical perspective, in order to be placed on a firm foundation for the 21st century.

Forensic science evidence like fingerprints and firearms identification, in use for nearly a century, has been much in the spotlight in recent years: challenged in the courtroom, criticized in a major report from the National Academy of Sciences, made the subject of pending Congressional legislation, and widely-discussed in criminal justice and policy circles. Critics argue that long-used pattern identification techniques lack adequate proof of reliability, while defenders argue that these methods are well-developed, valid and sound.  As these important issues have been discussed in academic circles, litigated in the courtroom, and debated by forensic scientists themselves, the academic and practitioner communities have often simply talked past each other.  

In an effort to change that dynamic, a baker’s dozen of the leading voices within the forensic science debates jointly authored “The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences,” just published in the UCLA Law Review, and available at http://uclalawreview.org/?p=1565.  This article marks the very first time that such a broad and diverse group of the leading voices engaged with forensic science – ranging from a former director of a major crime laboratory, to fingerprint experts, DNA experts, and numerous academics with backgrounds in  law, psychology, statistics and forensic science – has ever attempted to find common ground in print.    The group concludes that forensic science needs to develop a significantly more robust “research culture,” and offers numerous practical recommendations for how to help create this research culture and how to put forensic science on a more secure scientific footing. 

UCLA School of Law Professor Jennifer Mnookin, the lead author of the article, said, “This collaboration represents the first time such a broad group of participants in the forensic science debate have come together to reach a consensus about the future of forensic science. Given the breadth of our backgrounds and points of view, and the current controversies surrounding forensic science, we needed to get beyond defensiveness and finger-pointing to determine what forensic science needs most to best serve the legal system, the justice system and the public. We all agree that developing a moderate and sensible program to place the pattern identification fields onto a firmer scientific and research foundation is necessary to help secure the field’s future.”  Mnookin wrote the article in collaboration with 12 co-authors: Simon A. Cole; Itiel E. Dror; Barry A. J. Fisher; Max Houck; Keith Inman; David H. Kaye; Jonathan J. Koehler; Glenn Langenburg; D. Michael Risinger; Norah Rudin; Jay Siegel; and David A. Stoney.

“Professor Mnookin succeeded where many have failed. She brought together a group of knowledgeable people who, more often than not, do not agree on many things. She created an environment where we could all debate the issue of research needs in forensic science. The result is a well thought out law review article which, if adopted, can only help forensic science advance and to silence some of its critics,” said Barry Fisher, former director of Los Angeles County’s crime laboratory, and one of the article’s authors.  “As a follow-up to the National Academy of Science’s (NAS) report on forensic science, this article proposes a strategy that, if adopted, would address a number of issues that were raised in the Report:  the need for more research, the need to really put the ‘science’ in forensic science and the need to minimize the problems caused by bias.   None of this is too much to ask of a field so important to the criminal justice system,” said Jay Siegel, forensic science professor at Indiana University-Purdue, another co-author.

Three distinguished contributors have published commentary on the article in the same issue of the Law Review, including Joseph P. Bono, president of the American Academy of Forensic Science, the Honorable Nancy Gertner, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and Pierre Margot, a professor of forensic science at the University of Lausanne.

The article grew out of the inaugural Program on Understanding Law, Science, and Evidence (PULSE) conference, “Forensic Science: A Blueprint for the Future,” which was held at UCLA School of Law in February 2010. The conference convened a notable group of experts from both academia and practice, on the one-year anniversary of the NAS report assessing the strengths and limitations of forensic science, to examine the current state as well as the future of forensic science

PULSE was founded in 2009 by UCLA School of Law Professors Jennifer Mnookin and Jerry Kang. The program engages in interdisciplinary research, discussion and programming to examine how basic “facts” about our world, provided through science and credited as evidence, influence various venues of law and policymaking.

About UCLA School of Law
Founded in 1949, UCLA School of Law is the youngest major law school in the nation and is dedicated to principles of excellence, innovation, access and service. With approximately 100 faculty and 970 students, the school pioneered clinical teaching, is a leader in interdisciplinary research and training and is at the forefront of efforts to link research to its effects on society and the legal profession. For more information, visit http://www.law.ucla.edu.