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New Ecology of Quality Assurance by Murch (FSC, April 1999)

New Ecology of Quality Assurance by Murch (FSC, April 1999)

April 1999 - Volume 1 - Number 1

New Ecology of Quality Assurance

Randall S. Murch
Deputy Assistant Director, Science
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington DC

At the recent (February 1999) American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Orlando, I was invited to contribute to a symposium on quality with a talk entitled “The Challenges of Quality Assurance in the Forensic Laboratory.” I chose to approach the term quality from an ecological perspective rather than the standards- and accreditation-driven approach that is most often promulgated today. Here, I attempt further philosophical commentary along this pathway.

In my view, forensic laboratories will best establish, maintain, and advance quality when it is viewed and conducted from a systems approach in which a number of interrelated subsystems contribute to a harmonious, dynamic ecosystem. I dissect this ecosystem into the seven subsystems of

  • scientific truth,
  • practitioners and managers,
  • infrastructure and process,
  • peer groups and standards,
  • external review,
  • scientific capabilities, and
  • perspective.

Fundamentally, quality does not happen in scientific or related organizations without a commitment to determining and communicating scientific truth within acceptable limits of the science and technology applied. The quest for scientific truth does not end: As scientists, we should always strive to do better, provide more usable information from the evidence, and be more effective. Strong and definable foundations are built and strengthened for support, and we unceasingly impose rigor on what we do. The scientific method makes our science and technical practice live and breathe. We continually seek best practice and tools. We strive to better interpret, understand, and communicate what we do because we do not live in an isolated ecosystem. We accept that science and technology always evolve and change, often at a faster pace than do our neighbors who are the most interested in our forensic endeavors. We hypothesize, study, test, validate, incorporate, educate, and advance. Science, like medicine, is not always strictly quantifiable but can be legitimately based upon observation that is repeatable, structured, and documentable.

Quality will not be optimally achieved without positive attention being given to the people charged with carrying it out. Ultimately, it is management’s responsibility to provide an organization with the human resources (not just bodies) it needs by

  • recruiting and placing the best qualified people possible;
  • properly training and certifying them for the position hired;
  • developing, articulating, and measuring core competencies;
  • providing access to relevant continuing education, which includes advanced degrees;
  • providing lateral and vertical professional development opportunities;
  • overlaying pertinent, yet critical, review and audit processes;
  • understanding and applying accountability and corrective actions; and
  • testing proficiency.

All organisms in this complex food web must be active in these processes and outcomes.

Life does not exist, survive, and perpetuate without proper environment and sustenance. Likewise, quality people, products, and services in forensic laboratories will thrive when the infrastructure and business processes are optimized and balanced. The space we reside in should meet our needs five years from now. We must embrace the advance of information management and communication systems to make most efficient the delivery of products and services. Increasing and wisely invested equipment and supply budgets is the cost of doing quality forensic business. The physiology of what and how we do also deserves close study and improvement. Is our œkos (Greek for house and root of the word ecology) organized properly? Do we have effective and well-understood command, control, and feedback systems in place? Do all the component parts interrelate efficiently? Do we have a well-thought-out strategic plan? Do we understand how and why we have built it so and how we are going to execute it? Have we looked at cost versus benefit tradeoffs?

Many species of organisms are grouped in communities for beneficial social and biological reasons. Interaction in these communities takes place by various obvious and subtle means. The quest for quality science and technical practice in the forensic community should likewise be ordered, balanced, selective, and evolutionarily beneficial. Scientific working groups (SWGs) are critical niches for the identification and natural selection of guidelines for practitioners of the practice, validation, and communication of specific forensic science and art. Standards organizations and accrediting bodies should provide relevant, understandable, and consistent guidance so we walk on firmament rather than quicksand. These pearls should be performance- and outcome-based, not process-based. Guidelines and standards should be designed and engineered with the mind-set of down-line quality. The right people using the right processes will meet these needs of our ecosystem.

The quality and practice of science and related endeavors is properly dependent upon, and advances because of, external peer review. This has been true in science and other fields for hundreds of years and more recently understood and applied in the forensic laboratory environment. We should work very hard to improve and strengthen this structural framework. Accreditation through recognized, external organizations is a critical contributor to the quality and credibility of forensic laboratories. However, several aspects need investment of energy and resources. Accreditation should be built upon consistent, predictable, articulable, and understandable rules. Standards and guidelines should change as necessary, but creatures of our size, mass, and mobility do not locomote well on earth that is sometimes the consistency of soft Jell-O™. One means to achieve this is to create an inspection system that uses a permanent, dedicated core inspection staff supplemented with trained assistant inspectors who are expert managers and senior practitioners from pertinent disciplines. This service should be sized to fit demand and should not negatively impact any of the contributors of personnel or prospective consumers. Regular, prescribed self- or collaborative peer inspection should occur between the quintennial bursts of energy. The bar of natural selection should be high, and only those properly prepared and tested should be able to leap over it (and celebrate).

Our scientific and technical capabilities must be a focus of our attention and investments. Current best practice should always be sought. Research, development, test, and evaluation of new technologies and methodology is a required cost of doing business. Authorizers and appropriators should listen and act positively. Legitimate advancement should not be limited by the legal community but should be made understandable and helped by mutualism. At any moment in time, the performance boundaries of all instruments, methods, and techniques should be defined, understood, and communicable. The community should seek and use rigorous, consistent approaches to the validation of the new before the new is ever applied to physical evidence. Every opportunity to publish or present important advancements or observations should be sought or provided for. Organizations that embrace forensic science would make an important contribution to quality and continuous improvement if they were to raise the standards of the publications and presentations they permit.

I wonder whether—within certain laboratory systems—synergism and increased positive outcomes would occur if resources and expertise were cooperatively (regionally) consolidated rather than (geographically) underpopulated and distributed. Here, I contemplate the benefit and limitations of the specialist versus generalist as well as more consolidation of expertise and services to provide improved performance and responsiveness. I fully expect vigorous and antagonistically vocal response to my observations.

It is important to keep a critical and realistic perspective of the tidal wave of quality assurance propagating through our forensic ocean. We exist in a complex ecosystem with many species, communities, niches, and stresses participating or affected. We should remember frequently that quality assurance and its specialists exist to support forensic science and its practitioners, not principally the other way around. Our vision of forensic science and quality must embrace change and its effective management. This requires leadership and commitment from many working together, not few working independently. As forensic scientists, we should remember why we seek quality people and practices as well as useful and timely services. We serve the guilty and their victims, the innocent, and the system that seeks to correctly address and accommodate them.

Quality, like Mother Earth, is a work in progress.

Link to American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) website