Pilar Ossorio

How do views on rewards and burdens differ between the law and STEM fields in academia?

In STEM fields, tenure decisions are very heavily weighted towards research output, such as published articles describing the research done in one’s laboratory or by one’s research group. Academic advancement and status derive almost entirely from research accomplishments, and there is much less emphasis on teaching than in legal academia. In the biomedical sciences, many faculty rarely or never teach an entire course. Instead, they give a few lectures each semester in courses run by a course organizer. Mentoring of graduate students who work in the biomedical scientist’s laboratory or research group often counts as part of their teaching obligation, as does mentoring of graduate students on whose thesis committees the academic scientist sits. Legal academics with expertise relevant to scientific research can be invited to sit on thesis committees, and I have found that doing so is educational and promotes collaborations.

Publishing in the STEM fields varies from one discipline or subfield to another, but is quite different from publishing in legal academia. In the biomedical sciences, only articles published in peer-reviewed literature count towards tenure; the biomedical sciences have nothing like student-run, non-peer-reviewed law journals. Furthermore, multi-authored articles are the norm. It is not unusual to find articles with fifteen or twenty authors and some with over one hundred authors. In such a context, what matters most is being the first author or the last author (“senior author”). First authors are often the more junior people who do most of the hands-on work. On a very large project, the first author is often the person who drafted the paper. A faculty member who runs an academic biomedical laboratory is almost never the first author of a scientific article, but to get tenure she or he should be the last author of numerous articles.

In addition, biomedical scientists are evaluated based on how many federal grants they have been awarded, by how much money they bring in to an institution and their research program, and by whether they have maintained continuous external grant funding throughout their career. Promotions to tenure, to full professor, and to administrative positions such as department chairs and deanships are strongly influenced by the amount of federal grant funding a scientist has obtained. Many academic bioscientists are not guaranteed their full salary by the university or medical school; they have to earn at least some portion of their salary by obtaining grants in a very competitive process. Running an academic laboratory is like running a small business, because one must obtain and maintain funding to support one’s graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, laboratory assistants, and staff scientists. They, in turn, do the hands-on research that yields the new scientific knowledge published in peer-reviewed articles that helps the faculty member to secure the next round of grant funding. While legal academics are preparing to teach their courses, academic scientists are writing grant proposals. For good reasons, academic scientists generally will not want to participate in an interdisciplinary collaboration that will not lead to peer-reviewed journal articles and new grant funding. This is particularly true for untenured biomedical faculty.

Finally, legal academics should not treat STEM fields as a monolithic “other.” Academics (and practitioners) in the various STEM fields do not all experience the same institutional incentive structures or professional cultures. The acronym STEM encompasses biomedical sciences, engineering, mathematics, statistics, chemistry, computer science, physics, and other disciplines. Among these diverse disciplines one finds differences in publishing cultures, interactions with the private sector, sources of government funding, and many other factors. For instance, when hiring faculty computer science departments compete with non-academic employers very differently than do bioscience departments. When legal academics want to establish collaborations with individuals in STEM fields, we need to understand the specifics of the professional cultures and institutional contexts in which our prospective collaborators operate.

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

As somebody who trained in the biomedical sciences before entering the legal profession, I think there are more similarities than differences in our styles of thought. Many people who have not worked in science imagine that science is about “facts,” but the day-to-day work of science is about data. Research produces data, humans (and sometimes algorithms) interpret that data to produce information and knowledge. Good scientists know that their interpretations, or interpretations done by algorithms, can always be incorrect or incomplete. As a result, they always have to be looking at the data and wondering whether the story they are telling themselves about those data is the best or most correct story. They have to imagine more than one story that could be told about the same data, and then devise experiments that will differentiate among the possible stories. This skill is quite similar to the skills lawyers use when analyzing fact patterns or arguing cases.

I think success in almost any academic field, whether in law or a STEM discipline, requires a degree of creativity. Many (but not all) STEM academics express their creativity in designing experiments, while legal academics express their creativity by devising new theories or by providing new ways of understanding existing legal paradigms. In both cases, however, creativity can involve bringing new types of knowledge or new technologies to bear on an “old” problem, or thinking orthogonally to the received wisdom.

Pilar Ossorio is Professor of Law and Bioethics where she is on the faculties of the Law School and the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the Medical School of the University of Wisconsin. 
Dr. Ossorio’s research interests revolve around research ethics and the protection of research participants, including: governance of large bioscience projects; data sharing in scientific research; the use of race in biomedical and social science research; ethical and regulatory issues in human subjects research; and the regulation and ethics of online research.