Skip to main content

In Memoriam: Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Senior Program Associate Deborah Runkle

Deborah Runkle, a leader of the American Association for Advancement of Science's groundbreaking programs on the intersection of law and science for three decades, died from sepsis-related complications on February 2. She was 75.

Runkle was a senior program associate in the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program, associate staff director of the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists and program manager of Court Appointed Scientific Experts (CASE) until her retirement from AAAS on January 2, 2021.

"Debbie made so many meaningful and lasting contributions during her three decades at AAAS, building bridges between science and law. She was so dedicated to integrity in science and in the use of science in the law. She left an important legacy, especially in the areas of neuroscience and law, in which we continue to actively engage the judiciary," said Theresa Harris, interim program director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.




Deborah Runkle, second from left, accepts the 2009 Judicial Education Award from the American Bar Association for a AAAS series of seminars on neuroscience issues emerging in courtrooms and the law.



Runkle was the first major hire of Mark Frankel, the former director of the AAAS program, as AAAS was expanding its work in ethics and human rights to include the association's law and scientific activities. Runkle's previous work experience at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm "gave Debbie, and our program as well, an invaluable tool for expanding AAAS' reach into the law, while giving us traction with the professionals who populated it that could not be matched by any other interdisciplinary U.S.-based scientific society," said Frankel.

In her time at AAAS, Runkle was instrumental in developing and overseeing CASE, a program that locates and recommends scientists, engineers and healthcare professions to serve as court-appointed experts in federal district courts, state trial courts and administrative law courts. Since February 2001, CASE staff have assisted judges in evaluating the qualifications and conflicts of interests of scientists proposed to serve as court experts, advised on managing litigation involving CASE-recommended experts and assisted judges in refining issues that will be addressed by the experts.

Runkle "spent large chunks of time with lawyers — prosecutors and defense attorneys — judges and scientists, spreading word about the project and, thankfully, in many cases getting their buy-in, primarily because she was so convincing in making the argument that AAAS had no interest in particular cases, and thus could remain a neutral observer," Frankel recalled. "The association was committed to advancing the proposition that science and law had much in common, including the rigorous use of science to contribute to the fairness and credibility of the American justice system."

Another influential program developed and overseen by Runkle was AAAS' Judicial Seminars in Emerging Topics in Neuroscience , supported by the Dana Foundation and held to educate judges on cutting-edge research on topics including memory, the neuroscience of violence, adolescent brain development, the neurological impacts of video games and the opioid crisis. AAAS received the 2009 Judicial Education Award from the American Bar Association's Judicial Division's National Conference for Specialized Court Judges for the seminars.

Runkle's diverse portfolio at AAAS also included monitoring the use of animals in scientific research, organizing symposia about science-based forensic evidence in the criminal justice system, and holding workshops on advocacy in science and global standards of research integrity and overseeing projects related to personalized medicine. She was a co-author with Joanne Hawana on Personalized Medicine: Prescriptions and Prospects, a 2011 book published by The Food Drug and Law Institute.

"One of Debbie's greatest achievements shortly before her retirement was to work with our Public Engagement colleagues, specifically Rese Cloyd, to pilot a training series for federal judges on climate science," said Jessica Wyndham, former director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.

"Debbie was a formidable advocate for those who challenged systems, swam against the tide and stood up for the core principles of scientific integrity and scientific responsibility despite external opposition, threats and harassment," Wyndham added.

Runkle was a member of Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah (OSTT) congregation in Olney, Maryland, and was active in numerous Jewish charities and causes. She is survived by her sons Benjamin and Stephen, her daughters-in-law Marya and Jennifer, her sister Phyllis Beetsch, and her grandsons David, Ari and Tyler.


Becky Ham

Related Focus Areas