Who will capture forensic science?

April 6, 2009

by Roger Koppl

Friday I spoke at a conference on  Forensic Science in the 21st Century: The National Academy of Sciences Report and Beyond  The report was a humdinger.  It says,  “The bottom line is simple: In a number of forensic science disciplines, forensic science professionals have yet to establish either the validity of their approachor the accuracy of their conclusions, and the courts have been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem.”  That’s strong stuff.  The report did a good job at identifying the unscientific nature of much of forensic science.  The report neglected problems that can arise in nuclear DNA analysis, but it is still impressively hard hitting.  

The NAS gets high marks for noting how little science there is in much of forensic science.  Their proposals for corrective action run into public choice problems.  In an  earlier post  I defended their idea of creating the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), which is supposed to be a combined SEC and NSF for forensic science.  I think NIFS is better than no NIFS, but it is important to do a little elementary public choice analysis of the risks.  If we don’t break the monopoly structure of forensic science, there is a grave risk of  regulatory capture.    (Clay Bennett has a great cartoon on capture.)  This “oversight” body may be “captured” by concentrated interested who bring organized resources to the political process.  Legislators have an interest in concentrating benefits and dispersing costs.  That incentive structure creates the risk of capture.  

Oversight and research are both in play.  Who will do the research NIFS supports and how will that research be vetted?  I have recently touted the work of Butos and McQuade on science funding.  Larry White has a great paper in Economic Journal Watch from 2005.  See also anything Art Diamond writes on these topics, including this. 

The creation of NIFS is a perfect object of inquiry for anyone interested in the intersection of Austrian economics and public choice theory.  Congress is working on the creation of NIFS, which means the fight is on to capture the soon-to-be-created agency. 

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