Our nation once again celebrates its unique capacity to transfer leadership with grace and dignity. The joyousness of the occasion, however, quickly fades into solemnity as citizens and institutions alike assume their vigil, standing guard to keep watchful eyes on those in positions of power.
One community that stands guard is forensic science, protecting citizens from unjustified criminal punishment by speaking for evidence that can't speak for itself. It empowers our police and courts with the ability to construct scientific foundations upon which decisions of guilt or innocence can be more firmly based.
Simply put, criminal justice in America is more accurate, more reliable, and more fair because of forensic science. With the recent change in presidential administration, perhaps this message can now resonate across our nation's capital instead of suffocating under blankets of legal and academic grandstanding.
You see, in recent years Washington, D.C. has been both kind and cruel to forensic science - kind in its attempts to provide support where support is needed, cruel in permitting relentless attacks on its credibility when such attacks were not justified.
Our outgoing president is a trial attorney. A major focus of his administration was criminal justice reform, and for good reason. We have very complex problems in how we administer justice in the United States. But President Obama went too far. He gave safe haven to legal activists who then attacked forensic science with near impunity - hoping to weaken its stature in courts of law.
The recent report on forensic science by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) was the icing on the cake. But as often happens with work born of ideological activism rather than the thoughtful consideration of evidence, the PCAST report is slowly withering under the relentless forces of intellectual scrutiny.
But now, the American electorate has made a sweeping change. A business mind was selected to replace a legal one.
Time will tell what kind of president Donald Trump will be. Yet it's highly doubtful that he will hand the keys of forensic science to legal activists as President Obama did. Nor will President Trump likely support the bureaucratic wheel-spinning that has counterproductively burdened the forensic sciences for nearly a decade. Despite millions of dollars spent on commissions, committees, standards structures, and a host of other initiatives, forensic science and its workforce have never been more maligned and disparaged than they are now.
Admittedly, some of it is deserved. Much of it is not. But it is becoming almost impossible to tell the difference, and that is the problem.
Now that the sun has set on the administration of our 44th president, we find a profession of forensic science that is bruised, distracted, and still starving for resources, but continually searching for the promised land, so to speak - a chance to enjoy some semblance of stability and calm.
Fortunately, it is all within reach. But Washington, D.C. will never truly listen until we harvest the many answers and solutions that exist within our profession. To do this, we must unite. We must collaborate. We must vigorously debate issues that are important to us even when those debates get a bit ugly. And most of all, we must continually strive to improve our practices.
Yes, the awkward courtship between forensic science and Capitol Hill will always be relevant to some extent. But it must be optimized, to say the least.
First, the National Commission on Forensic Science should be reformed or terminated without delay. The confusion it produces outweighs its value, with certain members of the commission seemingly intent on fomenting journalistic and judicial scorn rather than building public confidence.
Second, serious consideration should be given to establishing a permanent home for forensic science within the Department of Justice. A century's worth of criminal and civil litigation has demonstrated how important forensic science is to both public safety and the preservation of constitutional rights. As it now stands, forensic science is an orphan in need of a place to incubate its future.
And since forensic science is a justice enterprise, a justice home makes sense.
Finally, the select few sent to our nation's capital to represent the interests of forensic science should remember the words of Winston Churchill, who said: "You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something."
Rubbing elbows with political insiders is exciting but not the goal. It is a means to an end, but that end is long overdue. Forensic science remains on unstable ground. It is accused of being a leading cause of wrongful convictions even though research has clearly shown otherwise. Funding is still not commensurate with public demands. Misinformed journalists continue to write nonsense about the role of forensic science and its impact on justice.
President Obama cannot be blamed for every frustration experienced over the last 8 years. Too often, the profession of forensic science does not bring its "A-game" to the field of play.
Our profession is immersed in turbulent political waters that can only be navigated by those having the right stuff. We have among us the talent to leverage wonderful possibilities for forensic science. It's time for us to stand up for something - to lead.
What leaders will emerge from among our ranks who have the talent and backbone to function competently within an entirely new paradigm? Some already have. Some are waiting.
Wherever they are, let's hope they're ready.