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The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has renewed support for Iowa State University's Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence (CSAFE). The renewal will provide up to $20 million over the next five years to further the center's mission. Photo courtesy of the Iowa State University Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence
05.10.2020

Iowa State University CSAFE Receives $20 Million Extension

Funding to Support Continued Advancements in Forensic Science, Data Access

By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

Iowa State University’s Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence (CSAFE) has received a five-year, $20 million cooperative agreement extension from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to continue its work building statistical foundations within the realm of forensic science.

Since its inception in 2015, with an initial five-year NIST cooperative agreement of up to $20 million, CSAFE has worked to clarify the uncertainty and limitations associated with analyzing forensic evidence, from fingerprints to cell phone data. And now, with funding extended until 2025, the center will make the transition to the second phase of its mission, dubbed by leadership as “CSAFE 2.0.”

“Many of the challenges CSAFE tackled over the last five years are complicated. Although we have made good progress, they aren’t solved in a day,” said Alicia Carriquiry, CSAFE director and Iowa State University distinguished professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Receiving this second round of funding not only provides us with an opportunity to see our original research through to the end, but also a chance to investigate ways to transfer some of that research into practice.”

Throughout its first funding term, CSAFE — comprised of five universities and led by Iowa State— has focused on tackling one of the largest problems facing the forensic science community: lack of available data. While some data are proprietary and not available to researchers, even more have never been collected. In the years since first receiving funding from NIST, more than 60 researchers from Iowa State, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Virginia, Duke University, and University of California, Irvine have worked to build publicly available databases of common types of evidence.

To date, more than 20,000 three-dimensional images of bullets, 250,000 images of the soles of shoes, and 1,000 handwriting samples have been compiled. But the massive amount of data the center has been able to catalogue is merely a “nice side effect,” Carriquiry said. The real prize lies in the algorithms CSAFE researchers have been able to develop to determine evidence probability, such as the likelihood that two bullets were fired from the same gun.

In its second iteration, the center will continue to invest in constructing databases that exist in the public domain for future research, pursue making evidence algorithms publicly available, and begin transferring scientific findings to investigators in the field and lawyers in the courtroom.

The center’s researchers will also focus on growing proficiency in the forensic and legal communities, partner with crime labs to investigate the efficacy of forensic tools, and offer education and training resources.

“CSAFE has done fantastic work to advance the conversation regarding the application of forensic evidence,” said Jerry Zamzow, Iowa State University assistant vice president for research. “The center’s work to apply statistical foundations to evidence serves both prosecutors and defenders by equipping them with fact-based arguments. We are looking forward to the impact that the next phase of the center will have on this critically important area of the criminal justice system.”

Connecting each of the center’s initiatives slated to take place over the next five years is the foundation CSAFE was built upon: bringing science and objectivity to evidence evaluation, which often relies on personal opinions. With West Virginia University added as a new partner, CSAFE 2.0 will include much needed expertise in forensic science research and practice.

“Years ago, we hoped an entity independent of law enforcement could transform the forensic sciences from wholly subjective methods to ones that could be objective, empirically-based, and validly quantitative,” said Peter Neufeld, co-founder and special counsel for the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and criminal justice system reform. “Not only has CSAFE brought together research scientists, statisticians, and the forensic community to accomplish that goal, it has also inspired others in the forensic and broader scientific communities to begin their own research. The Innocence Project is thrilled that NIST has decided to extend the funding to CSAFE, it’s money very well spent.”

The new $20 million cooperative agreement extension will be distributed among all six CSAFE partner universities, with most of the funding being put toward paying for personnel, research and outreach components, equipment procurement, and data collection. The renewal goes into effect June 1.

“Further investment in CSAFE is really an investment in all of forensic science,” said Peter Stout, CEO and president of the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC). “Our collaboration with CSAFE has been invaluable to HFSC programs and initiatives, especially our efforts on blind quality controls. We look forward to additional partnerships and collaborations with the center.”