While the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science & Technology Policy Fellowships are more than four decades old, the program has been sending scientists to share their expertise with the U.S. judiciary for only four years.
Since 2014, the program has placed four fellows at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington. Their presence is small compared to the hundreds of fellows deployed to the federal legislative and executive branches, but the judicial fellows already have made a significant impact, said James Eaglin, who directs the Center's research division and serves as mentor to the policy fellows.
The fellows' contributions to the federal courts "have proved invaluable," Eaglin said. "When questions come up from a colleague that may relate to the intersection of law and science, we have the fellows as a recognized source of expertise and a resource for us to help resolve or answer those questions."
The Center conducts and promotes research on federal judicial procedures and administration and provides continuing education and training for judges and federal court employees. Because of its engagement in a wide range of issues, many of which are relevant to science and technology, fellows at the Center often have an opportunity to work in areas that correspond with their interests and expertise.
In addition to the scientific or engineering credentials required of all Science & Technology Policy Fellows, the judicial fellowship requires at least three years of professional work experience. A law degree or other legal expertise is preferred but not mandatory.
Shubha Ghosh, who has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan and a J.D. from Stanford Law School, was the program's inaugural judicial fellow. He came to the program in mid-career, after several years working as a professor and consultant. At the Center, he researched attorneys' fees in patent litigation and patent law related to DNA research. The year in Washington "enhanced my scholarly focus," he said, leading him to write several journal articles and book chapters on biotechnology patenting. Now a professor at Syracuse University College of Law, Ghosh said the fellows' experience "has also informed my teaching, and pushed me to want to teach more about policy in the future."
By contrast, the 2017-18 judicial fellow, neuroscientist Andrea Gaede, applied for the fellowship as an early-career scientist with no legal background. She had developed an interest in neuroethics during postdoctoral work at the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta. She worked with staff in the Center's Education Division and others to develop interactive online training modules for federal judges and staff on the basics of recent neuroscience research and its use in the legal system.
The modules cover topics from addiction science to brain imaging technologies to how differences in levels of brain development impact behavior. One of the challenges in creating the modules was finding the right level for the training, Gaede said. "Some judges may not have had a biology class since high school, and some of them might know what p-hacking [a bias in data collection and analysis] is," she explained. "Our product has to deal with a real range of skill and background."
Since his 2016-17 fellowship, Duke University researcher Pate Skene has worked with others on amicus briefs for cases involving standards for forensic evidence and the effects of family separations and stress on brain development in children and teens.
"The judicial fellowship not only transformed my academic research but also opened the door to working directly with lawyers and the courts in an important area of law," said Skene. "During my fellowship, I focused on the way courts manage scientific evidence, including the way courts have responded to recent challenges to the scientific validity of traditional forensic science. Since returning to Duke, I have continued to explore this area as an academic interest. But I have also had the opportunity to teach in continuing legal education programs and to consult with attorneys to help them evaluate the scientific evidence in specific cases."
Mamadi Corra, a sociology professor from East Carolina University, began his fellowship year in September. His research project will focus on physical barriers to accessing court data through online systems such as PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records).
At the end of Corra's fellowship, Eaglin said, "we are hopeful that the federal judiciary will have a very concentrated perspective in terms of improvements that can be made in these systems, but certainly heightened sensitivity to the challenges faced by differently-able individuals."
"We are grateful for the support we receive from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to be able to offer the judicial fellowship, and we are eager to be able to bring more fellows to the federal judiciary in the future," said Jennifer Pearl, director of the fellowship program.
The fellows provide expertise that increasingly is in demand by the federal courts, as judges and their colleagues grapple with the legal implications of rapidly advancing technology and sort out the validity of scientific evidence and expert testimony, said the Honorable Barbara Rothstein, senior U.S. district judge for the District of Columbia.
Rothstein and other speakers, including American University Washington College of Law constitutional law professor Stephen Wermiel, shared a broad overview of the judicial branch with the 2018-19 fellowship class during their two-week orientation held in Washington in September. The cultures and methods of science and the law differ, Rothstein said, especially in matters of how long it takes to resolve a dispute and in what kind of consensus must be built around evidence.
"But science and law are the two professions on which our modern society is fundamentally based," she said. "At a time when there are alternative facts, false news, both science and the law stand as bulwarks in the search for truth."