Trump Administration's War on Science Reaches Justice Department
'Hard to overstate how backward and misguided this is,' says one observer
The Trump administration's anti-science bent has reached the Department of Justice (DOJ), with Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying Monday that the department is ending the National Commission on Forensic Science.
The 30-member panel was described by ThinkProgress as "a group of scientists, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other experts tasked by the Obama administration in 2013 with raising standards for the use of forensic evidence in criminal proceedings."
In its place, a senior forensic advisor will be appointed "to interface with forensic science stakeholders and advise department leadership," Sessions' statement said.
Members of the commission—experts from major institutions and universities—wrote to Sessions (pdf) just last week, urging that the panel's charter be renewed. The commission, they wrote, "has made a positive and indelible impact on the criminal justice system" and "has facilitated an important discussion regarding issues at the intersection of science and law that are unique to forensics."
"For too long, decisions regarding forensic science have been made without the input of the research science community," they declared.
Now, the Washington Post reported, "Several commission members who have worked in criminal courts and supported the input of independent scientists said the department risks retreating into insularity and repeating past mistakes, saying that no matter how well-intentioned, prosecutors lack scientists' objectivity and training."
U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff of New York, the only federal judge on the commission, told the Post: "It is unrealistic to expect that truly objective, scientifically sound standards for the use of forensic science...can be arrived at by entities centered solely within the Department of Justice."
And the implications could be dire.
"The reliance of law enforcement on questionable science and the overstatement of the reliability of that science has been a leading cause of the wrongful conviction of innocent people," said National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) president Barry Pollack on Monday. "The reason the National Commission on Forensic Science has been so important is that it includes leading independent scientists, allowing an unbiased expert evaluation of which techniques are scientifically valid and which are not. NACDL is terribly disappointed that even while acknowledging the crucial role played by the National Commission on Forensic Science, the Attorney General has chosen to disband it."
Other journalists and rights advocates weighed in on Twitter:
Sessions halts scientific review of forensics. Hard to overstate how backward and misguided this is.
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) April 10, 2017
Sessions moves to protect junk forensic science at the urging of law enforcement groups. https://t.co/eZcXbeBpFM
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) April 10, 2017
Sessions kills a commission meant to improve forensic science so it doesn't convict the wrong people https://t.co/qG1nC5sJuC
— Mazel Tov Cocktail (@AdamSerwer) April 10, 2017
More anti-science from the Trump admin. This time in the Justice Dept. https://t.co/1wNFrKTdw9
— Lawrence M. Krauss (@LKrauss1) April 10, 2017
Major blow to independent forensic science, objective evidence: US Justice Dept. to end forensic science commission https://t.co/GXK8bXIui7
— Deborah Hatch (@deborahhatchlaw) April 10, 2017
— Laurie Garrett (@Laurie_Garrett) April 10, 2017
Trump administration wants to convict more people on bogus "scientific" and "forensic" non-evidence. https://t.co/ZlXce8tSq3
— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) April 10, 2017
Very sorry to see this. Objective & evidence-based forensic science are necessary predicate for accurate CJ system https://t.co/w41npFqCH0
— Carissa B Hessick (@CBHessick) April 10, 2017
According to the Post, Trump's DOJ also "has suspended an expanded review of FBI testimony across several techniques that have come under question."
Monday's moves are just the latest in a string of anti-science decisions made by the Trump administration, which has moved to slash funding for and otherwise hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, and the National Institutes of Health, among other agencies.
A March for Science is scheduled to take place Saturday, April 22 in Washington, D.C. and around the world.