The DANA Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and Dangerous Minds

The question of whodunit, and why, used to be mostly black or white. Jurors’ jobs were easier: Either the perp was insane or he wasn’t. Either there was evidence or there wasn’t. These days, however, neurological evidence is common in the courtroom: A good thing for criminologists; a challenging thing for jurors.

How can complicated neurological data be integrated into the already tricky business of divining guilt or non-guilt? That’s where a couple of foundations come in, funding research into criminal neurology and teaching judges how to interpret this new realm of information. In two very different and innovative ways, the DANA Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are forging a new brain research grantspace.

Since 2007, the MacArthur Foundation has supported their Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, which is devoted to research examining issues such as detecting deception, cognitive development in adolescents, and when neuroscientific evidence like brain scans should be admissible in court. Three areas of focus—Mental States, Adolescent Development, and Evidence—help organize the Network’s progress around key criminal justice system shortcomings, and the findings are disseminated to anyone with an interest in “the intersection of law and neuroscience.” That includes practitioners, researchers, organizations, and even the general public.

In the interest of bringing neuroscientific research directly into the courtroom, the DANA Foundation has, since 2007, gifted the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) about $124,000 per year to convene neuroscience seminars for state and federal judges. Last week, one such seminar was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hosted jointly by the Neuroscience and Public Policy Program and the Law School. The seminars are geared specifically toward addressing the kinds of neuroscience-based dilemmas judges may encounter on the bench, and have been met with much critical acclaim. In 2009, the seminar series received the American Bar Association’s Judicial Education Award.

Though the MacArthur initiative and the DANA Foundation initiative aren’t officially linked, it’s easy to see how they fit together: MacArthur forwarding the cause of criminally-based neuroscience research, and the DANA Foundation bringing that research to the people who need to understand how to use it well.