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August 14, 2012 | Tom Ballard

ORAU helping build regional forensics coalition, holding September 13 event

Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) is taking the lead in helping build a regional forensics coalition that has a strong scientific focus and has planned a major symposium for September 13 at the University of Tennessee’s Baker Center.

The effort, billed as the Tennessee Valley Corridor Forensics Initiative (TVCFI), is being led by Eric Abelquist, ORAU’s Executive Vice President. Many might wonder about ORAU’s involvement, particularly in a leadership role. In an interview with, Abelquist explained that it is a natural outgrowth of ORAU’s programmatic activities as well as its involvement in the region.

Andy Page, ORAU President and Chief Executive Officer, asked Abelquist to “take the reins” about 18 months ago when Tony Lester, the federal contractor’s former Director of Business Development, moved to a new responsibility.

“There’s a lot of forensics going on in the region,” Abelquist said. “We also have a contract to support the FBI Terrorist Explosive Devices Analytical Center through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).” ORAU manages ORISE.

Much to the author’s surprise, ORISE employs about 100 professionals in forensics covering the full spectrum including prints, chemistry and firearms. As such, ORAU and its ORISE subsidiary have a strong interest in the topic, but Abelquist said it goes much deeper.

ORAU is a prime contractor to the U.S. Department of Energy and also does work for a number of other federal agencies. In fact, its webpage proclaims that ORAU is “a consortium of major Ph.D.-granting academic institutions . . .  (that) cultivates collaborative partnerships that enhance the scientific research and education enterprise of our nation.”

Abelquist explains that ORAU believes that forensics science could benefit from a more robust research effort. “The error rate (in many applications) is not necessarily zero” even though many professionals believe or say it is, Abelquist adds.

“There has not been enough scientific research to validate everything absolutely,” he says, citing a 2009 report from the National Academies of Science titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.”

Among its key findings was the fact that, while there are many dedicated forensics professionals, there is also “a paucity of strong scientific research” in the field. The report elaborated on this point by saying that there is:

  • frequent absence of solid scientific research demonstrating the validity of forensic methods, quantifiable measures of the reliability and accuracy of forensic analyses, and quantifiable measures of uncertainty in the conclusions of forensic analyses;
  • paucity of research programs on human observer bias and sources of human error in forensic examinations;
  • paucity of interdisciplinary scientific research to support forensic disciplines and forensic medicine;
  • absence of solid scientific and applied research focused on new technology and innovation;

Abelquist described these findings as “galvanizing” for an organization like ORAU where science is the basis for the organization and the initiatives that it pursues.

Since taking the lead, Abelquist and the Tennessee Valley Corridor, Inc. have pulled together a coalition of regional organizations that includes universities, private companies, federal agencies and federal contractors. They include the University of Alabama in Huntsville; Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee State University, North Carolina State, and Western Carolina Universities; Wallace State Community College; National Institute of Hometown Security; Safe Skies Alliance; MCLinc; R. J. Lee; and Y-12National Security Complex.

The September 13 symposium is an important event in the TVCFI evolution.

“The United States has to address this,” Abelquist says in referring to the challenges identified in the National Academies’ report.

“The ultimate goal (of the TVCFI) is to solidify partnerships to pursue funding and position the region to be competitive,” Abelquist said.

More information about the “Tennessee Valley Corridor Forensics Symposium” can be found at

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