An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2018

Bridging the Science-Law Divide

David Baltimore, David S. Tatel, and Anne-Marie Mazza
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Formal opportunities for members of the scientific and legal communities to engage in ongoing collegial consideration of issues at the interface of science and law are limited. In the late 1990s, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine established the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law (CSTL)-composed of equal numbers of members from science, engineering, and law-to provide an ongoing forum that would build permanent links between these communities. The range of issues investigated by the CSTL and the influence of these explorations are discussed in this essay.

DAVID BALTIMORE, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1974, is President Emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. He is Cochair of the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. His recent publications include articles in the journals Blood, Journal of Immunotherapy, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

DAVID S. TATEL, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2015, is a Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He is Cochair of the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

ANNE-MARIE MAZZA is Senior Director of the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The committee's recent publications include Dual Use Research of Concern in the Life Sciences: Current Issues and Controversies (2017), Making the Living World Engineerable: Science, Practice, and Policy (2016), Optimizing the Nation's Investment in Academic Research (2016), and Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009).

Scientists and lawyers often appear to be speaking different languages. Each profession has its own culture and conventions, as well as its own jargon, and each employs distinctive means of resolving conflicts.1  Often, when scientists and lawyers attempt to communicate, these differences can result in misunderstandings and confusion.2  Moreover, when the institutions that represent these two professions attempt to collaborate, the likelihood of such difficulties can increase.

For almost two decades, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Science, Technology, and Law (CSTL) has attempted to bridge the divide between the legal and scientific communities by developing projects and reports that encourage insightful consideration of scientific findings by legal institutions and appropriate oversight of the conduct of scientific, engineering, and biomedical research.3  This essay discusses the origin of the CSTL and highlights some of the work the committee has undertaken to strengthen the bonds between science and law.4

The creation of a standing committee within the National Academies devoted to issues at the interface of science and law was not an easy decision. Many scientists within the National Academies viewed the sometimes brutal adversarial nature of the exchanges among legal professionals as unsuitable for an institution devoted to the scholarly search for scientific truth. The National Academies’ mission of offering high-quality objective expert advice on some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation and the world seemed to some to be incompatible with the advocacy mission that animates much of legal discourse. When a need arose to address an issue pertinent to the legal profession, various committees of the National Academies would step up to offer advice on the particular situation, and then return to other issues focused more on scientific research than law.5 .  .  .

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  • 1“[L]aw and science are both knowledge-generating institutions, but … fact-making serves different functions in these two settings.” Sheila Jasanoff, “Law’s Knowledge: Science for Justice in Legal Settings,” American Journal of Public Health 95 (S1) (2005): S49–59.
  • 2As Susan Haack put it: “two simple observations: that the work of a scientist is very different from the work of an attorney or a judge; and that, when scientists give expert testimony or advise a court, a regulative body, etc., communication can be difficult and very imperfect.” Susan Haack, “Scientific Inference vs. Legal Reasoning? – Not so Fast!” paper shared at the Dædalus authors’ conference on “Science and the Legal System,” July 2017, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • 3The CSTL is not the first attempt at building better understanding and communication between these two communities. Indeed, Sheila Jasanoff was, and remains, a pioneer in this field, providing foundational understanding of the interactions between law and science. Also, in 1974, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Bar Association founded the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists. See American Association for the Advancement of Science, “National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists,” And, in 1975, the National Research Council established the Committee on Law and Justice “to improve governmental decision making and public policy, and promote the understanding and dissemination of research in matters involving law and justice.” See The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine,
  • 4Throughout this essay, when we refer to the scientific and legal communities, we mean to include with the scientific community the engineering and medical communities, and when we refer to the legal community, we are including the judiciary, legal academy, legal practitioners, and policy-makers. (For a complete view of the CSTL’s work, see
  • 5See, for example, the National Academies’ reports: National Research Council, DNA Technology in Forensic Sciences (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004); and National Research Council, Forensic Analysis: Weighing Bullet Lead Evidence (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004).