July 27, 2011 – Beginning next year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will offer a unique post-graduate academic program designed to bridge the gap between the justice system and the rapid advances reshaping our understanding of neuroscience.
The integrated Dual Degree Program in Neuroscience and Law, the only such formally structured and university-approved initiative in the country, will offer students the opportunity to simultaneously earn a Ph.D. degree in neuroscience and a J.D. degree in law.
The goal, explains program director Professor Ronald Kalil, is to train a cadre of scientist/attorneys to be well versed in the realms of both scientific research and the law to inform conversations in both disciplines.
Neuroscience an interdisciplinary field
Neuroscience, the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, has traditionally been seen as a branch of biology, but it is now pursued as an interdisciplinary field that encourages collaboration among a wide range of academic disciplines.
At the UW-Madison campus, for example, more than 170 neuroscientists are advancing our understanding of the nervous system across levels ranging from molecular mechanisms to human behavior.
Neuroscience is an especially appropriate scientific field for students of law because recent research has called into question many widely-held assumptions about the brain that could impact the legal system, including research that is deepening our understanding of such issues as criminal responsibility, brain death, the capacity of adolescents and mental health patients to stand trial, impairment of decision-making capacity by drug or alcohol use and the relationships between mental impairment and dangerous behavior.
The dual degree program will produce neuroscientists who also are skilled in the law, thereby preparing them to address these and other emerging legal, scientific and public policy issues that bridge the two disciplines.
Neuroscience in the courtroom
In the years ahead, the courts are likely to confront challenging issues raised by the commercial application of new findings from neuroscience that will require careful assessment on both scientific and policy grounds.
For example, ongoing research is likely to shed light on claims that have already been made that brain scan imaging technologies offer the legal system a new and more reliable “lie detector.” Other new neuro-technologies, such as brain implantations for therapeutic purposes, are likely to offer new treatment options, but could also raise a whole new set of legal and policy questions.
Despite the fact that science will almost certainly play an increasingly important role in our understanding of the neurologic factors that contribute to human behavior, including criminal behavior, there are few opportunities to rigorously apply the findings from one field to the other.
The UW-Madison’s dual-degree initiative responds to this gap by providing a structured framework that will enable graduate students to examine how the two fields intersect.
Dual degree approach offers important advantages
While it would be possible for a student to earn a Ph.D. degree in neuroscience and a J.D. degree sequentially, the major advantage of studying both simultaneously in an integrated dual degree program is that it exposes students to points of contact between neuroscience and the law throughout their graduate careers.
This outcome will be promoted by the integrative context built into the dual-degree program and by explicit program requirements, such as mandatory enrollment in a neuroscience and public policy seminar during each year of study and completion of a required neuroscience and law comprehensive research paper.
“The student’s legal studies may inform her/his choice of a thesis project,” Kalil explains, “and conversely, as knowledge of neuroscience grows, it will inform the student’s legal insights and help to shape the required Research Paper.”
Kalil adds that a practical advantage of the dual degree program is that it will allow students to earn the Ph.D. and J.D. degrees, without sacrificing the quality of either, more efficiently than would be possible if the two degrees were pursued independently.
Approval of the dual degree approach offers students the opportunity to transfer 15 credits from the doctoral program toward the requirements for a law degree, effectively saving participating students 1.3 semesters of course work (and accompanying costs).
The Neuroscience and Law Program will be administered by the Neuroscience and Public Policy (N&PP) Program and will enroll its first class in the fall of 2012.
By Tom Solberg
, Media Relations Coordinator, State Bar of Wisconsin