Minnesota Law

Spring 2024
Faculty Focus

Professor Francis Shen Returns to Minnesota Law

A pioneer in law and neuroscience

Professor Francis Shen
Photo: Tony Nelson

Minnesota Law welcomed back Professor Francis Shen to campus in early January after his 18-month stint on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and as an affiliate professor at Harvard Law School. Shen is one of the country’s leading experts at the intersections of law and neuroscience and law and artificial intelligence. 

“I am thrilled to return to the Law School,” Shen says. “My brief time away made me appreciate even more Minnesota’s truly great environment, faculty, and students.” 

Shen’s pioneering work focuses on how neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI) can provide powerful insights for law and make the legal system more just and effective. 

“Law is built on the concept of precedent,” he says. “But the power of the past in the law raises a challenging question: What if, in the intervening years, we have learned something important? The building blocks of the law were erected at a time when we knew little about the brain. But today we know so much more, and I believe advances in brain science will catalyze significant changes in legal doctrine and practice.” 

Shen sees neuroscience playing an increasingly large role in law, in such areas as legal and policy challenges around protecting older adults with dementia, preventing brain injury, criminal sentencing, and mental health treatment. He notes that neuroscience is not just a field of knowledge but also a producer of new neurotechnology tools that are raising legal, ethical, and social issues. 

“Law is in the business of governing human behavior,” he says. “That means law needs to understand why humans do what they do. But if neuroscience is going to matter to the law, it has to improve the lives of litigants and improve the practice of law. There has to be a practical application.” 

Shen’s innovative Neurolaw Lab, whose motto is “Every story is a brain story,” collaborates with scientists and legal practitioners to develop real-world applications. He observes that brain evidence is now being cited in thousands of cases and many new patents every year. He hopes to establish the first neurolaw clinic to provide lawyers and litigants across the country with legally relevant neuroscience insights. 

“Brain science is increasingly going to be front and center and you need a team with expertise in law and science,” he says. “It’s exciting that the culture of the University of Minnesota encourages individuals and departments to work together. I am lucky to collaborate with colleagues across the campus to build and expand this work.” 

In addition to teaching at the Law School, Shen is a faculty member in the University of Minnesota Graduate Program in Neuroscience and collaborates with colleagues at the University’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR). He is also taking on a larger role within the University as co-chair of the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences. 

Shen was well ahead of the curve when he co-authored the first casebook on law and neuroscience (Aspen, 2014) and taught his first course in 2016 on the then-nascent topic of law and AI. Last year the American Law Institute (ALI) awarded him an ALI Early Career Scholars Medal, recognizing him as a “pioneer in establishing the interdisciplinary field of law and neuroscience.” In conjunction with receiving the award, he provided the keynote speech on law and neuroscience at ALI’s annual meeting. 

Shen joined Minnesota Law as an associate professor in 2012 and previously served as executive director of education and outreach for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. His work has been and continues to be supported by the National Institute on Health (NIH), National Science Foundation, and multiple private foundations. 

Currently, he is also working with interdisciplinary teams to co-lead two NIH BRAIN Initiative supported projects. One project explores the ethics of portable MRI, a technology that stands to transform health care but is also surrounded by unresolved ethical and legal issues. The second initiative seeks to reshape neuroimaging research by building community trust and creating new research strategies that empower more diverse and representative participants. 

As he expands his roles and research, Shen stays focused on his core belief: advances in neuroscience and AI can improve the law but only through careful, interdisciplinary work and community engagement. “Minnesota Law is the perfect place to pursue innovative research at the intersection of law, science, and technology,” he says. “I couldn’t be more excited to be back.”