Two U of M academics tout a greater policy role for science

By John Horchner

Speaking to capacity crowds at the St Paul campus for Headliners, the University of Minnesota’s popular current event series, two academics contended that science should have a greater role in shaping public policy.

In November the U’s Dr. Francis X. Shen, a leader in law and applied neuroscience, described how our legal system is based on precedence, or case law.

But determining law based on what has gone before or even on current notions of morality and free will “…is clearly not enough,” Shen said, contending that with recent scientific advances, it seems impossible to render justice if we keep looking backward.

“Every story is a poorly understood brain story,” he asserted, noting that our understanding of the brain is in its infancy.

For this reason, Shen does not believe that neuroscience will enter the legal profession like a rocket with defenses amounting to “my brain made me do it.” But he asserted that in the next 10 years things could look a lot different.

When law is based on brain science, he said we might ask: “Why do we continue to punish drug offenders for committing relapse on parole when it is to be expected? What would we do if the same person had say, diabetes or epilepsy and had a seizure at a critical moment when judgment was called for?”

Neuroscience can be used for “a lot more than criminal law.” Shen further discussed how he and other researchers at the U are working to improve lives through, among other things, concussion policies in youth sports.

With the same eye to what an understanding of science can do improve law, another University researcher, Dr. Kate A. Brauman, shared findings from the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for which she was a lead author.

Brauman spoke for Headliners in December.

The depressing headline “One million species at risk of extinction” is often pulled from a press release for the report. But rather than that doom-and-gloom scenario, Brauman said she hopes the report will be used to “unleash values and actions. Institutions and governance play a big role in what happens on the ground to nature.”

She added that government can help people “thrive in ways that aren’t detrimental to the environment,” and mentioned the Clean Water and Clean Air acts and how they’ve “helped make things so much better than 50 years ago.”

When asked whether increases in population alone were to blame for our environmental ills, she answered, “No. It’s us. The places with the biggest environmental impact are the most affluent . . . Maybe we need to think about our definition of what is a good life.”

Braum acknowledged that while some people like to choose their own facts in making public policy, she still remains optimistic. In her experience, she said lawmakers are very interested in the findings presented.

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