It’s been a particularly robust year for the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, marked by a wide-ranging slate of pursuits. Among them: a major conference on moral biology; workshops on health care reform, reproductive technologies, and follow-on biologics; measuring the global burden of disease; examining how clinical trials are conducted in the developing world; and studying stem cell funding, pharmaceutical patents, neuroscience and its application to criminal law.

The Center—founded five years ago as a think tank to respond to the need for leading legal scholarship at the intersection of medicine, science, and law—tackles a wide range of issues, bringing together top scholars from a variety of fields in an interdisciplinary approach to some of the thorniest problems faced by society today.

Click here to view a discussion of the Petrie-Flom Center with co-directors I. Glenn Cohen and Benjamin Roin.

Take, for example, the center’s two-day conference in April, “Moral Biology: What Can Biology and the Mind Sciences Teach Us about Law and Morality,” which was co-sponsored by the HLS Project on Law and Mind Sciences, the Harvard Program on Ethics and Health, the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research, and the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project with support from the Cammann Fund for Law and Medicine at Harvard. Part of a larger project at the center, the conference “examined how developments in neuroscience and evolutionary biology should affect the way that law, morality, and philosophy think about subjects like responsibility, racism, addiction, cooperation, and punishment,” says I. Glenn Cohen ’03, co-director of the center and an HLS assistant professor of law. Another part of the project focused on helping federal judges learn about neuroscience and its applicability to the judicial process, and a similar event with state judges is planned for September.

One panel looked at research on implicit biases, racism, and the brain—in particular, ways in which people may have racist tendencies of which they are completely unaware. “What should the law do about that? What can the law do about it?” asks Cohen.

Another panel examined free will and responsibility in the context of criminal law theory, and the ways in which new technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can (and cannot) provide information useful in determining an individual’s responsibility for a particular crime. Understanding the technology provides a window on some fundamental questions about what it means to say an individual is responsible for his or her actions, and how the answer might differ from criminal law to torts, for example. Another panel presented research involving game-theory and fMRI to understand ways in which people are innately cooperative or not. “From this we might gain some useful information about how law and other social structures can facilitate or stymie cooperation,” Cohen says.

Video: Cohen and Roin discuss their interest in the field.

With such ambitious events, the Center, founded with a generous gift from Joseph H. Flom ’48 and the Petrie Foundation, is fulfilling its mission to produce scholarship and offer solutions to legal problems involving health care, biotechnology, and bioethics. “I think all of this is cutting-edge, and cutting-edge in myriad different ways,” says Cohen, one of the nation’s foremost scholars in bioethics and reproductive technology, who this spring taught a course titled “Genetics and Reproductive Technology: Legal and Ethical Issues” and also taught a full-year workshop with Einer R. Elhauge ’86 on health law policy, bioethics and biotechnology. (See “Science Chase” in Summer 2009 Harvard Law Bulletin).

This area of the law is burgeoning and of enormous interest to students, as evidenced by the long waiting lists for the more than a dozen courses at HLS in the areas of health law, bioethics and biotechnology, a curriculum which Cohen describes as “unparalleled at any of our peer schools.” The law school boasts six student groups focused on the field, and the Center also collaborates with other parts of the university (including the medical and public health schools) and units of the law school including the HLS Health Law Clinic, directed by Robert Greenwald at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center. Together, they were able to bring the White House director of the Office of National AIDS Policy and senior adviser on Disability Policy to HLS to discuss the administration’s plans on HIV and disability as part of the health reform package.

One critical component of the Center is the fellowship program, which supports scholars pursuing various forms of research, including work from philosophical, economic, or empirical perspectives. The Center offers student fellowships and two-year academic fellowships for those who already hold a graduate degree and intend to enter the legal academy. The fellows work under the mentorship of Cohen and Benjamin Roin ‘05, Hieken Assistant Professor of Patent Law. Both were Petrie-Flom Fellows before they joined the HLS faculty.

Cohen says that the Center’s founding director, Einer R. Elhauge, the Petrie Professor of Law, was “visionary” in establishing and developing the fellowships. “We need good people to teach in this field,” Cohen says. Alison Hoffman, an academic fellow finishing the program this year, will be joining the faculty at UCLA law school, while her colleague, Christopher Robertson, is headed to the law school at the University of Arizona. Hoffman produced a “wonderfully timely piece” on health insurance fragmentation or risk-pooling among insurers, examining whether mandates of the kind in place in Massachusetts and imposed by federal legislation can solve the problem, says Roin. Robertson wrote about expert witness testimony in medical malpractice lawsuits and its effects on juror understanding. Previous fellows Talha Syed, SJD’10, and Abigail Moncrieff accepted positions at UC Berkeley and Boston University, respectively.

Cohen says there is a great deal of energy at the Center, especially around plans to continue its growth as a meeting point for new ideas in health law and its associated fields. It’s extremely challenging and very interesting work, he says, and critically important, given that such a huge portion of the nation’s GDP is consumed by health care. “What I like about it is easy,” says Cohen, smiling, and notes the broadness of the field and its application to so much of what goes on in human society. And, he adds, “It’s a great mix of empirical examination, doctrinal analysis, implementation detail, and lofty philosophical ideas.”