Labor Pains: After 5-Year Gestation, Birth of the Forensic Science Standards Board (FSSB)

It’s been five years since the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued the scathing report on forensic science1 in the U.S.A. In the meantime, problems with forensic labs have become much more visible to the public, particularly for numerous cases of fraud by laboratory staff. Competency is still another issue that is harder to solve, especially with the prevalent “good ol’ boy” professional attitude.

The NAS report also analyzed the need for a reorganization to bring forensic science up to state-of-the-art, much like the EPA has done with its methods series. USP and ASTM are other examples that provide essential services to commerce. CLIA for medical diagnostics is effective in significantly improving laboratory performance and believability of clinical laboratory results.2 The EPA and CLIA experiences were traumatic, but also effective. We are now all better for both.

However, a more insidious problem is laboratories overextending the reach of their work.3 All too often in forensics, critical assays such as DNA identity and blood alcohols are poorly validated. Because of the variability of sampling situations, forensic sampling is less standardized than for clinical diagnostics. Also, in contrast to CLIA, the technical training of the people involved, including police, prosecutors, judges, and juries, is generally much lower than clinical lab staff and physicians.

Following the NAS report, there was little apparent action, but recently there has been movement. I’m certain that in the interim, groups were working to craft a response to the NAS. Something had to be done. Last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) published a memo of understanding in February 2013 essentially authorizing NIST to organize and manage the repair, probably on an ongoing basis. While details are sketchy, the organization chart shows a multidisciplinary approach designed to address technical and management issues (see Figure 1).4

Figure 1 ‒ Organization chart.

The org chart shows four major categories for the Forensic Sciences Standards Board (FSSB). These include the Legal Resource Committee (LRC), Quality Infrastructure Committee (QIC), Human Factors Committee (HFC), and Scientific Area Committee (SAC). For us lab rats, the most important committees are the last three, especially the subcommittees. A short summary explaining the org charts provides more details on funding, reporting relationships to DOJ, NIST, and the National Commission on Forensic Sciences.5

The SAC program is forecast to involve about 600 scientists, most of whom are expected to be volunteers. NIST anticipates needing nearly 600 people in the OSAC organization including:

  • Forensic Science Standards Board members (17, including the five SAC chairs)
  • Three resource committees (about 35 people)
  • Five scientific area committees (about 75 people)
  • Twenty-three subcommittees (about 460 people)

The subcommittees include:

SAC Biology/DNA

  • DNA Analysis 1: Forensic DNA Laboratory Methodology
  • DNA Analysis 2: Forensic DNA Laboratory Interpretation
  • Wildlife Forensics

SAC Chemistry/Instrumental Analysis

  • Controlled Substances
  • Fire Debris and Explosives
  • Geological Materials
  • Gunshot Residue
  • Materials (Trace)
  • Toxicology

SAC Crime Scene/Death Investigation

  • Anthropology
  • Disaster Victim Identification
  • Dogs and Sensors
  • Fire Scene and Explosives
  • Medical/Legal Death Investigation
  • Odontology

SAC IT/Multimedia

  • Facial Identification
  • Imaging Technologies
  • Speaker Recognition

SAC Physics/Pattern

  • Blood Stain Pattern Analysis
  • Friction Ridge (fingerprints, etc.)
  • Firearms and Tool Marks
  • Footwear and Tire Tread
  • Questioned Documents

A quota system is in place to assure diversity and semblance of balance between stakeholder segments. The first step was to organize the NIST Organization of Scientific Area Committees Roles and Responsibilities.6

On June 26, 2014, the first of several anticipated staffing announcements named the appointments to the first Forensic Standards Science Board.7 The FSSB manages the technical program of the OSAC, including approving standards and facilitating communication within the OSAC and the forensic science community.

Setting up a large organization multidisciplinary organization as envisioned and needed is a noteworthy task. However, the leaders should look to other organizations that have similar charters. The FDA in particular has developed skills in using the best available technology and science to provide safe and effective products and services to America. So let’s not try to reinvent the wheel by attempting to develop parallel universes in automation, IT, and regulatory philosophy. The U.S. Government has a poor track record in developing grass roots systems involving IT. (The FAA flight routing program, the IRS program for verifying the completeness of reported records, and the enrollment fiasco for ObamaCare are three examples of IT programs that have been conspicuous problems.). After three decades, the FDA’s expertise seems to be leading and working, especially with 21CFR part 11 compliance.

CLIA has elements that may also be useful for categorizing workflows and matching them to the capability of the operators. This seems directly transferable to forensic laboratories.

Some of the tasks for the SAC subcommittees could benefit from developed technology. For example, the SAC Biology/DNA lists the topics, “DNA Analysis 1: Forensic DNA Laboratory Methodology” and “DNA Analysis 2: Forensic DNA Laboratory Interpretation.”

DNA Analysis Technology and Interpretation is a rapidly developing field in clinical chemistry. Committee performance could be improved by coordination with the appropriate FDA staff. The SAC Chemistry/Instrumental Analysis leads off with “Controlled Substances.” The DEA has decades of experience analyzing these materials from around the world. It seems that this SAC could get a quick start by consulting and possibly adopting the DEA’s protocols. Cooperation with the private sector could also be important, since failure analysis laboratories such as McCrone Research Institute (Chicago, IL) have decades of experience looking at trace materials. Perhaps the SAC Chemistry could recommend licensing relevant methods from the private sector. Clearly there is an urgent need. Consulting others with decades of experience might shorten the learning curve.

Another concern: Let’s look back at the QIC and HFC. These directly relate to performance issues affecting utility and credibility. One can have great technology supporting modern methods, but if the staff is not trained and motivated to deliver quality data, the effort will flounder. For example, transferring a method from one lab to another is one of the most difficult and frustrating activities in analytical chemistry. Obtaining consistent and reliable data across many labs is usually a challenge that merits constant attention. Periodic round-robin studies and blinded proficiency verification must be built into the laboratory management and data quality assurance program. This is especially important when one is faced with legislatively promulgated limits as in blood alcohols (0.08% in most American jurisdictions).


  1. National Research Council. Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2009. Free copies of the report are available at
  2. Stevenson, R.L. Articles/128817-The-Time-has-Come-for-a-Forensic-Laboratory-Improvement- Act/
  3. Stevenson, R.L. Sensitive-to-be-Infallible/
  6.; Apr 11, 2014.

Robert L. Stevenson, Ph.D., is Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail:

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