Ivory Mills

How do lawyers think differently from STEM professionals when approaching problems and risk?

STEM professionals and lawyers approach problems and risks in dramatically different ways. By trade, scientists are curious. They explore and dig into the unknown for the sake of knowledge, understanding, and the advancement of human progress. More often than not, their explorations involve a variety of risks—professional, methodological, operational, and perhaps even physical. For example, Professor Keith Yamamoto of the University of California San Francisco’s School of Medicine argues that the willingness to take risks is the trait that separates the best scientists because it helps to solve problems and discover new techniques and phenomena.[1] Often, such risks require going against the norms or institutions of their field, creating potential threats to professional socialization, while also offering the greatest rewards. STEM professionals also take risks operationally and physically, exploring dangerous and unknown substances, locales, and practices. From risking their lives facing unpredictable natural disasters, utilizing toxic chemicals, and even engineering hazardous weaponry, STEM professionals embrace risk to solve challenging problems and to contribute to a critical and growing body of knowledge.

In contrast, lawyers approach problems and risks from a less exploratory perspective, and instead work to limit and mitigate. Traditionally, lawyers were tasked with advising clients and helping them understand the law. Over time, this role has evolved to include risk management ranging from operational, reputational, financial, and regulatory issues. While scientists and other STEM professionals work to develop novel approaches to problems by taking risks, their legal counterparts work to make sure that there is minimal harm, few threats, and manageable risks. While these risk-taking and risk-management roles can be complementary to each other when solving some problems, risk management can interfere or limit the potential of risk-taking in science.

What incentives would foster more collaboration between the law and STEM fields, in either academic or business/entrepreneurial settings?

Globalization and increased interconnectivity in the modern world have demonstrated the need for, and benefit of, collaboration between law and STEM fields. Society currently faces a variety of social, financial, legal, and scientific challenges that have been coined wicked problems.[2] These problems are public and/or social problems with numerous participants and stakeholders that are unstructured, cross-cutting, and relentless. Examples include the environment and climate, energy, and health. To address these problems, STEM professionals, lawyers, policymakers, and the private sector have collaborated and improved outcomes. To foster further collaboration across these fields, it is important to provide regulatory, financial, and institutional incentives.

Over the last fifteen years, many countries have made efforts to incentivize collaboration between STEM, business, and legal fields. In the U.S. for example, Congress passed the Cooperative Research and Technology Enhancement Act in 2004. This legislation provided enhanced intellectual property protection to joint ventures, incentivizing collaboration and supporting cross-sector innovation between STEM and business. Such regulation also encourages cooperation with the legal fields because lawyers, legal scholars, and law students support the resulting innovations as they seek intellectual property protection.

Financial incentives are also critical to incentivizing collaboration between law, STEM, and business, particularly for scholars and entrepreneurs. Grants and other pecuniary measures supporting collaboration will increase partnerships and information exchange. Finally, it is important that universities and the scholarly community encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. Often, scholars are limited in their collaborative ventures because of the journals where the materials will be published are not recognized in their field. Increasing exposure and exchange across disciplines will expand publication opportunities and incentivize collaboration.

Ivory Mills is a Law & Science Fellow and dual degree candidate pursuing a Ph.D. in Media, Technology, and Society and a J.D. at Northwestern Law. Ivory holds a B.A. in International Studies from Spelman College (2012), a M.A. in Media, Technology & Society (2014), and is a Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for International Public Policy, Cohort 16.

  1. iBioMagazine, Keith Yamamoto (UCSF): Taking Risks, YouTube (Sept. 20, 2010), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hUMlPFlFUg [https://perma.cc/VJ3U-2YT2]
  2. See Anne M. Khademian & Edward P. Weber, Wicked Problems, Knowledge Challenges, and Collaborative Capacity Builders in Network Settings 68 Pub. Admin. Rev. 334, 336 (2008) (“Wicked problems, in other words, cut across hierarchy and authority structures within and between organizations and across policy domains, political and administrative jurisdictions, and political ‘group’ interests.”).