The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences


The methods, techniques, and reliability of the forensic sciences in general, and the pattern identification disciplines in particular, have faced significant scrutiny in recent years. Critics have attacked the scientific basis for the assumptions and claims made by forensic scientists both in and out of the courtroom. Defenders have emphasized courts’ longstanding acceptance of forensic science evidence, the relative dearth of known errors, and practitioners’ skill and experience. This Article reflects an effort made by a diverse group of participants in these debates, including law professors, academics from several disciplines, and practicing forensic scientists, to find and explore common ground. To what extent do the forensic sciences need to change in order to place themselves on an appropriately secure foundation in the twenty- first century? We all firmly agree that the traditional forensic sciences in general, and the pattern identification disciplines, such as fingerprint, firearm, toolmark, and handwriting identification evidence in particular, do not currently possess—and absolutely must develop—a well-established scientific foundation. This can only be accomplished through the development of a research culture that permeates the entire field of forensic science. A research culture, we argue, must be grounded in the values of empiricism, transparency, and a commitment to an ongoing critical perspective. The forensic science disciplines need to substantially increase their commitment to evidence from empirical research as the basis for their conclusions. Sound research, rather than experience, training, and longstanding use, must become the central method by which assertions are justified. In this Article, we describe the underdeveloped research culture in the non-DNA forensic sciences, offer suggestions for how it might be improved, and explain why it matters.

By uclalaw