“My brain made me do it”: are we ready for more Neurolaw?

I’m excited to say that my book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from Genetics and Neuroscience is being published this week.

determinism cover

There are 5 chapters, in which I have attempted to pull together threads from moral philosophy, from law and from neuroscience to examine the growth of Neurolaw. Around the world, notably the USA and Italy, an increasing number of defendants are appealing to their genes or issues with the structure and function of their brain as mitigation for their crimes. To what extent should we allow this, now or in the future?

Chapter summaries:

  • Free will and determinism: an overview of some of the main schools of thought regarding the “free will problem” – Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Hard Determinism.
  • Existing legislation on mental disorders and criminal cases: automatism, criminal liability, diminished responsibility, “disease of the mind”, insanity, mens rea and M’Naghten.
  • Biological basis of behaviour: background on behavioural genetics and the use of various brain imaging techniques to investigate the extent to which our behaviour might be “hard wired”.
  • Use of genetic and neuroscientific evidence in criminal cases: a brief history of neurolaw. Summarises many of the key cases in which scientific evidence has been proffered by in criminal cases as (partial) justification of the behaviour of the defendant.
  • Are we ready for an expanded use of neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom?: In which I caution that the current use of genetic and brain physiology evidence is, at best, premature and uncertain.

Making the Most of Broadcast Media (Conference summary)

On 14th January 2014, the University of Leicester played host to a day conference on Making the Most of Broadcast Media in your Teaching. The event was organised on behalf of the Higher Education Academy STEM network, and we are grateful for the financial support that enable the meeting to take place.

The purpose of the day was to promote the use of television programmes and clips in bioscience education. There has always been huge, but often untapped, potential for use broadcast media in teaching. However, several recent developments have made it very much easier to identify appropriate materials and/or obtain copies in an easily usable format.

Slides from all of the presentations on the day are available below. The intention was to combine these with audio recordings from the day. Unfortunately Slideshare have recently announced that they are withdrawing their Slidecast facility and so, at present, only the images are available.

“But we’re not a media course!”: the relevance of broadcast materials to bioscientists (and others)

To start the day, I gave a presentation outlining some of the ways in which we have used TV and film in bioscience teaching. These include clips to set the scene, to convey factual information and/or as discussion starters. Delegates took part in an activity in which a clip from the populist science show Brainiac can be used to kickstart discussion about experimental design (see here for a fuller write-up of this task).

Copyright, the Education Recording Agency and all that: you can legally do more than you think!

Murray Weston (former CEO of the British Universities Film and Video Council) talked us through some of the evolution of the UK rules governing legal use of broadcast media for education. He explained what the current rules are, but also highlighted that important changes are expected from April 2014.

Short presentations offered by delegates

The next phase of the day allowed delegates to describe existing ways in which they use broadcast media in teaching. Three case studies were offered.

1. Critical reviews of TV science documentaries

First up, Prof Jon Scott (University of Leicester) outlined an exercise in which final year students are required to conduct a critical review of TV documentaries on neuroscience topics.

2. Using cold case files TV shows to develop forensic students’ scientific approach

Dr Ian Turner (University of Derby) then described a tutorial in which video clips from cold case series, and associated resources, are used with forensic students to help them improve their crime scene methodologies.

3. Headline grabbing: Using BBC news clips as an essay springboard

Dr Steve Maw (University of Leeds) described an activity he conducts with his foundation-level students in which they write an essay on ethical aspects of a biological or biomedical mews story. More details regarding a similar task can be found here.

Looking for resources? BoB’s your uncle!: An introduction to the Box of Broadcasts

Dr Sandy Willmott (University of Lincoln) gave a demonstration of Box of Broadcasts (BoB), an exciting new resource developed by the British Universities Film and Video Council and their technical partners. BoB allows academics and students in subscribing institutions to access an enormous catalogue of previous and current television for educational purposes. Sandy showed programmes can easily be selected and how the package allows users to select clips within episodes and, if appropriate, develop playlists.

Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching: making the most of TRILT to know what’s on and when

To complete the day, we had a computer-based session allowing delegates to set up or develop their own accounts using the Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT). TRILT allows users to check what has been on UK television (including a longer time period and broader range of channels than BoB) and to set up a weekly email alerts based on keywords of their choice.

One day in Alzira…

It seems that November is shaping up as a bit of a European tour for me. Trips later in the months to Naples and Edinburgh have been on the cards for a while, but my friend and colleague Salvador Macip and I ended up popped to Alzira, Spain on November 8th for 24 hours. This unusual behaviour was prompted by our success in winning the European Prize for the Popularization of Science.


This was the 19th year that the European Prize for the Popularization of Science has been awarded

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Involving alumni in careers education

The December 2011 edition of Bioscience Education included an account I wrote concerning our Careers After Biological Science (CABS) programme at the University of Leicester. The CABS series of careers talks was started in 2007. Since 2009 it has been supported and enhanced by the Bioscience careers blog which includes copies of the slides used in the presentations, as well as a variety of videos and/or audio recordings.

As the Abstract of the paper states:

Graduate employability is an important concern for contemporary universities. Alongside the development of employability skills, it is also crucial that students of bioscience, a ‘non-vocational’ subject, have awareness of the breadth of potential careers that can follow from their initial degree.

Over the past five years we have developed the Careers After Biological Science (CABS) programme. Former students are invited back to describe their current role and offer practical advice to undergraduates who may be considering moving into a similar discipline. The speakers’ career profiles and associated resources are then collated onto an open-access website for the benefit of the wider community.

This project is characterised by two principal innovations; the pivotal role of alumni in the delivery of careers education, and the integrated use of multiple social media (web2.0) technologies in both the organisation of careers events and development of an open access repository of careers profiles and associated resources.

To read the full article “Here’s one we prepared earlier”: involving former students in careers advice click here.

Institutional repositories, social media and academic publication: a simple experiment

Over at Science of the Invisible, my colleague Alan Cann has been reflecting on the contemporary landscape within academic publication. Specifically, he’s been thinking aloud about the role played by institutional repositories alongside (or, more radically, instead of) more formal journal publication (for example, see Wit’s End, which links in turn to Melissa Terras’ post What happens when you tweet an open access paper).

Institutional repositories are playing an increasingly important role in academic publishing

Prompted by Alan and Melissa’s enthusiasm for using social media to promote awareness of published work, in mid-November I started to use Twitter to advertise the existence of some of the papers I have deposited in the Leicester Research Archive (LRA). Some of my tweets were retweeted by others in the community, especially Alan, who also shared some of these within his Google+ circles.

Partway through this process it occurred to me that I had stumbled into a little experiment. So in the end I selectively tweeted about 8 of the 27 documents I currently have in the LRA. Admittedly these were probably the 8 papers that I felt were of most interest to the broader community on Twitter, but this did not mean they had previously received the most hits in the archive. In fact, if you rank the 25 works that had been in the Leicester repository throughout the 6 months (May to October 2011) from most to least popular,  then these 8 were ranked: 4th, 5th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 18th, 23rd and 24th= (2 documents were not added to the archive until November). Continue reading

Threshold concepts and Friendfeed – a window into troublesome knowledge?

On January 24th 2011 we were treated to a very thought-provoking seminar on “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge:  A Transformational Approach to Learning” as part of the University of Leicester’s Intrepid Researcher series. I won’t make extensive notes on the content of the presentation here because a very similar set of slides can be accessed here (Sept 2010, PowerPoint) and an older version here ( December 2008, pdf). A repository of resources related to the notion of Threshold Concepts is also available at this UCL site. I will reserve discussion here to a few of the main things that hit me.

Firstly, there is the notion that troublesome knowledge is really the key to maturing within a discipline – experiencing a certain amount of anxiety is a necessary part of moving on to deeper understanding. The concepts that trigger this experience within the majority of students may therefore be fundamental in their mastery of the topic. University education is analogous to gym membership (where work is required to reap the benefits) and not a stay at a luxury hotel.

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Research involving adults lacking capacity

Adherence to the ethical and legal guidelines can be problematic in any research. These difficulties are potentially compounded if the research involves adults who are lacking capacity to consent to their participation.

The toolkit can be found at https://connect.le.ac.uk/alctoolkit

The National Research Ethics Service (NRES) have recently published an online toolkit to help researchers, members of research ethics committees, and institutional research managers to ensure that projects fit with the legal requirements (for example, adherence to the Mental Capacity Act in England and Wales). The toolkit was developed at the University of Leicester and is primarily the brainchild of Emma Angell and Mary Dixon-Woods, with input from Ainsley Newson at the University of Bristol and with a little help from me.

The toolkit is split into Clinical Trials Involving Medicinal Products (CTIMPs) and non-CTIMPs to reflect the fundamental differences in the structuring and administration of each type of activity. There is also a separate section on emergency research.

We would value your feedback on the toolkit – please feel free to post comments here.