Recommendations from MacArthur Research Network on Law and Neuroscience cited in President’s Bioethics Commission Report

May 28, 2015

Professor Owen JonesThe need for training programs for judges and others working in the criminal justice system and the development of clear guidelines for applying insights from neuroscience to criminal cases are among 16 influential recommendations provided by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience to President Obama’s Bioethics Commission.

President Obama had charged the Commission to consider the ethical implications of neuroscience for criminal justice as part of the process of developing a set of core ethical standards to guide both neuroscientific research and the application of research findings.

The core team of the 15-member Research Network, which includes two judges and faculty representing diverse fields from 13 U.S. universities, prepared and submitted its recommendations in response to a request from the Commission. Coordinated by Research Network Director Owen Jones, who holds the New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law at Vanderbilt Law School, the recommendations address three important questions:

1) What steps should be taken to enhance the capacity of the criminal justice system to make sound decisions regarding the admissibility and weight of neuroscientific evidence?

2) To what extent can the capacity of neurotechnologies to aid in the administration of criminal justice be enhanced through research?

3) In what additional ways might important ethical issues at the intersection of neuroscience and criminal justice be addressed?

“Given the sharp rise in offers of neuroscientific evidence, the legal system must navigate in a very careful and informed way between the hype and the actual promise neuroscience can afford,” Jones said. “Two important aims of our work are to help the legal system avoid misuse of neuroscientific evidence in criminal cases and to explore ways to deploy neuroscientific insights to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.”

Jones, one of the nation’s few professors of law and biology, designed and launched the Research Network in 2011, supported by three grants to Vanderbilt from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, totaling over $6 million dollars. Team members have thus far published 31 empirical or conceptual works addressing the intersection of neuroscience and criminal law and are on track to publish 33 more. “Our work explores both the benefits and the equally important limitations when neuroscience is used to assess responsibility for behavior, infer the consequences of brain injuries and conditions, detect lies and memories, or understand how jurors and judges make liability and punishment decisions,” Jones said.

In the chapter of its report addressing the implications of neuroscience for the criminal justice system, the Bioethics Commission cited 15 publications by teams in the Research Network, including four co-authored by Jones—the recommendations to the Bioethics Commission and articles published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, the Journal of Neuroscience and an edited volume on neurolaw. Jones is also a co-author, with Jeffrey Schall and Francis Shen, of the coursebook Law and Neuroscience (Aspen, 2014).

The intersection of law and neuroscience is a research frontier, and the Bioethics Commission’s report highlights the policy implications of the Research Network’s initiatives and Jones’ work at the intersection of law and neuroscience. Said Jones, “When the President expresses interest in a new field, for which Vanderbilt leads the national research effort, it’s yet another sign of this law school’s breadth, depth, and continuing contributions to policy-making at a national level.”


Headquartered at Vanderbilt Law School, the MacArthur Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, addresses a focused set of closely-related problems at the intersection of neuroscience and criminal justice: 1) investigating law-relevant mental states of, and decision-making processes in, defendants, witnesses, jurors, and judges; 2) investigating in adolescents the relationship between brain development and cognitive capacities; and 3) assessing how best to draw inferences about individuals from group-based neuroscientific data.

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