ISHPSSB2023 Toronto

The Phil_OS project has organized three sessions at the biennial meeting of the ISHPSSB in Toronto (9–15 July, 2023):

Note that ‘Conceptualising Environments’ was nominated for the ISHPSSB Interdisciplinary Organized Session Prize.

Coordination within and beyond the lab: Challenges of transdisciplinary life science

Organizer: Sabina Leonelli

Speakers, times & location

13 July, 9:00-10:30 (Myhal Centre – MY 380)

  • Fotis Tsiroukis, University of Exeter: Stigmergic coordination in Greek plant research: Opportunities and challenges
  • Joyce Koranteng-Acquah, University of Exeter: Bridging the science-policy gap in Ghanaian agricultural research
  • Nathanael Sheehan, University of Exeter: Genomic data sharing for COVID-19: Diverse enough?
  • Rachel A. Ankeny, University of Adelaide & Sabina Leonelli, University of Exeter: Themes and variations in the ‘precision’ sciences: On the relation between regimes and repertoires

Session Abstract

This symposium explores some forms of coordination through which life science researchers align their plans, goals and activities to the broader institutional, social and political demands characterizing their research environment. While the interdependence of scientists and their context has been widely documented by historians and social scientists, the nature of that interdependence, the different scales at which it is actualized, and its implications for the methods and outputs of research continue to be a matter of lively debate. Philosophers have focused much of their attention on the role of values in science, and the ways in which biologists respond to locally available financial and technological opportunities (or lack thereof) when developing their work. In this symposium, instead, we focus on transdisciplinary environments where biological research is not the exclusive activity of specialized groups of professional scientists, but rather is distributed across academic and non-academic efforts to manage the environment, including national and international policy institutions, public fora hosted by digital platforms, and commercial product development. We consider four different cases of transdisciplinary research and interrogate the challenges of coordination confronted by researchers in each example, and what this may tell us about the interactions between sites, processes and institutions involved in these forms of knowledge development.

The session will be run as four subsequent papers, with each speaker taking fifteen minutes for presentation and five minutes for discussion. We start with two papers that consider the nature of coordination mechanisms used at the national level to connect specific research locations and relevant policy stakeholders. Fotis Tsiroukis considers the concept of stigmergy as a model for bottom-up, asynchronous coordination and discusses how this could be applied in the context of Greek efforts to coordinate plant and agricultural research within the country, which are consistently challenging despite the presence of an overarching institution devoted to such coordination and the relatively small geographical distances. Joyce Korateng-Acquah looks instead at how a specific plant breeding institute, the Crop Research Institute in Kumasi, presents its contributions to Ghanian national agricultural policy, using this case to reflect on the contemporary challenges of science-policy coordination in Ghana. After these two national-level cases, we move to two examples of international coordination aimed at the exchange of outputs and methods for research, both of which also involve the development of a specific understanding of the role of biological knowledge within broader society (and thus, the ways in which researchers are expected to coordinate with stakeholders in public health, environmental conservation, and agriculture). Nathanael Sheehan focuses on the sharing of genomic data for public health, by examining the opportunities and tensions emerging when constructing large-scale data infrastructures to access data on SARS-COV-2 variants. Rachel Ankeny and Sabina Leonelli look instead at the idea of ‘precision science’, which they argue has been used as an overarching socio-technical regime to guide the coordination between academic research and non-academic partners, and yet is instantiated differently depending on the widely different understandings of collaboration characterizing domains such as agriculture, biomedicine and toxicology.

Conceptualising Environments in and for Research: Biological and Philosophical Perspectives

Organisers: Rose Trappes & Sabina Leonelli
Nominated for the ISHPSSB Interdisciplinary Organized Session Prize.

Speakers, times & location

12 July, 9:00-10:30 (Myhal Centre – MY 150)

  • Alejandro Fábregas-Tejeda, Ruhr University Bochum: Biological environments vis-à-vis research environments: Meaningful ontological parallels or a case of epistemic parallax?
  • Francesca Merlin, IHPST, CNRS & Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne & Gaëlle Pontarotti, IHPST, CNRS & Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne: The pathogenic niche: an empowering concept of environment for health studies
  • Joseph Rouse, Wesleyan University: Niche construction in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science
  • Elis Jones, University of Exeter: Coral reefs and the ecological dimensions of science

12 July, 11:00-12:30 (Myhal Centre – MY 150)

  • Carlos Andrés Barragán, University of California, Davis & James Griesemer, University of California, Davis: “We needed less contemporary genomic noise”: substantiating ancient DNA as a research environment
  • Luana Poliseli, Wageningen University & Research: Love me or love me not: the case of aesthetics values in ecological research environments
  • Rose Trappes & Sabina Leonelli, University of Exeter: What can be learnt about research environments from niche concepts?

Session Abstract

The relationship between an organism and its surroundings has been conceptualised in various ways throughout the history of biology and other disciplines (Pearce 2010; Benson 2020). In this respect, concepts such as niche and environment play a central role in fields ranging from evolutionary biology and ecology to biomedicine and public health. They are especially central within recent research on niche construction, gene x environment interactions, and environmental determinants of health. This has spurred a renewed emphasis on developing a critical analysis of these notions and related research approaches within the philosophy and history of biology (Millstein 2014; Pocheville 2015; Justus 2019; Dussault 2020; Wakil and Justus 2022; Pontarotti, Dussault, and Merlin 2022).

At the same time, HPS researchers have long drawn on these biological concepts, theories and practices to characterise the conditions of knowledge production. For instance, philosophers of science have applied concepts of cognitive or epistemic niches to understand adaptive problem solving, conceptual change, or relations between disciplines (Griffiths and Stotz 2008; MacLeod and Nersessian 2013; Rouse 2016; Linquist 2019; Gross, Kranke, and Meunier 2019).

Despite their considerable overlap, these two strands of research are often considered independently of one another. It thus remains unclear how critical reflections on organism-environment relations might relate to, or even inform, philosophical and social scientific research on the material and social conditions of research and the relationship between what one may call ‘research environment’ and researchers’ agency, development, and outputs. There is a long intellectual tradition that interrogates the conditions and drivers for scientific change. However, questions remain around the alignment of the diverse factors (such as conceptual frameworks, norms, institutions and access to material resources) that constitute the context and primary influence for research practices as situated, local endeavours, and whether there are indeed parallels between biological development and the evolution of biological research practices (Caporael, Griesemer, and Wimsatt 2013; Ankeny and Leonelli 2016; Rouse 2016).

This symposium addresses this disconnect, bringing together philosophical work on environments, niches and niche construction with conceptualisations of the material and social contexts in and through which science happens. What might philosophical analyses of concepts of niche or environment tell us about how to understand the conditions of scientific research? How does the context-dependency of research affect biological understandings of organisms and their environments? With these sorts of questions as our starting point, we hope to generate a productive dialogue amongst philosophers, historians and social students of biology about key biological concepts and ways of understanding biological research. The session will be organised as a double symposium, with the first four papers presented in the first half, and the second half featuring the remaining three papers and a final roundtable discussion.


Ankeny, Rachel A., and Sabina Leonelli. 2016. “Repertoires: A Post-Kuhnian Perspective on Scientific Change and Collaborative Research.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 60 (December): 18–28.

Benson, Etienne. 2020. Surroundings: A History of Environments and Environmentalisms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Caporael, Linnda R., James R. Griesemer, and William C. Wimsatt, eds. 2013. Developing Scaffolds in Evolution, Culture, and Cognition. The MIT Press.

Dussault, Antoine C. 2020. “Neither Superorganisms nor Mere Species Aggregates: Charles Elton’s Sociological Analogies and His Moderate Holism about Ecological Communities.” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 42 (2): 25.

Griffiths, Paul E., and Karola Stotz. 2008. “Experimental Philosophy of Science.” Philosophy Compass 3 (3): 507–21.

Gross, Fridolin, Nina Kranke, and Robert Meunier. 2019. “Pluralization through Epistemic Competition: Scientific Change in Times of Data-Intensive Biology.” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 41 (March): 1.

Justus, James. 2019. “Ecological Theory and the Superfluous Niche.” Philosophical Topics 47 (1): 105–24.

Linquist, Stefan. 2019. “Why Ecology and Evolution Occupy Distinct Epistemic Niches.” Philosophical Topics 47 (1): 143–65.

MacLeod, Miles, and Nancy J. Nersessian. 2013. “The Creative Industry of Integrative Systems Biology.” Mind & Society 12 (1): 35–48.

Millstein, Roberta L. 2014. “How the Concept of Population Resolves Concepts of Environment.” Philosophy of Science 81 (5): 741–55.

Pearce, Trevor. 2010. “From ‘Circumstances’ to ‘Environment’: Herbert Spencer and the Origins of the Idea of Organism–Environment Interaction.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41 (3): 241–52.

Pocheville, Arnaud. 2015. “The Ecological Niche: History and Recent Controversies.” In Handbook of Evolutionary Thinking in the Sciences, edited by Thomas Heams, Philippe Huneman, Guillaume Lecointre, and Marc Silberstein, 547–86. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Pontarotti, Gaëlle, Antoine C. Dussault, and Francesca Merlin. 2022. “Conceptualizing the Environment in Natural Sciences: Guest Editorial.” Biological Theory, January, s13752-021-00394–97.

Rouse, Joseph. 2016. “Toward a New Naturalism: Niche Construction, Conceptual Normativity, and Scientific Practice.” In Normativity and Naturalism in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Routledge.

Wakil, Samantha, and James Justus. 2022. “The ‘Niche’ in Niche-Based Theorizing: Much Ado about Nothing.” Biology & Philosophy 37 (2): 10.

Making Data Communities

Organizer: Federica Bocchi

Speakers, times & location

11 July, 9:00-10:30 (Myhal Centre – MY 360)

  • Federica Bocchi, Boston University: Turning biodiversity data into evidence: Data communities and the red list of threatened species
  • Emma Cavazzoni, University of Exeter: Data communities from shared technologies: bringing drones into field research
  • Paola Castaño, University of Exeter: What is an institutionalized community of data users? NASA’s GeneLab and the analysis working groups

Session Abstract

This session advances a novel approach to scientific communities as knowledge-producing groups centered around their engagements with data. We call these communities “data communities”. The session addresses the ways in which this is a useful unit of analysis to investigate how data become evidence through collective work, and the way scientific communities are created based on data practices.

Philosophers, historians, and social scientists have long been interested in demarcating what makes a social group a scientific community, and several approaches have been put forth. For example, understandings of scientific communities endorse classifications based on thought collectives, and shared paradigms or (perspectival) modeling practices (Fleck 2008 [1935], Kuhn 2012 [1962], Roe 2017, Massimi 2022). Other approaches group communities around disciplinary expertise, research questions, value endorsement (Oreskes 2019), and repertoires (Ankeny and Leonelli 2016). Social scientists, who made of scientific community a classic topos, have focused their inquiries around the issue of social ties expressed in publications (Crane 1972), networks (Mulkay, Gilbert, and Woolgar 1975), trust (Shapin 1994; Collins et al. 2022), competition for prestige and control over their fields (Bourdieu 1975). Some have also aimed to move beyond the concept to think along broader terms of epistemic communities (Knorr-Cetina 1999). While engagements with data are certainly present in these accounts, they do not play a central role in conceptualizing scientific communities.

We provisionally define “data communities” as diversely structured groupings of individuals dealing with data. This working definition has two main axes: the investigation of how data become reliable epistemic tools on the basis of collective work, and how the engagement with particular kinds of data creates forms of grouping. We endorse a pluralistic approach to the grouping of data communities and the community-based data standards, and the session talks offer insights and case studies that support our pluralistic reading.

The session features three talks and one commentator. Each talk discusses a different aspect of data communities along these two axes. The first talk by Federica Bocchi focuses on the standard of evidence that data communities abide by in producing knowledge about global ecological claims. This presentation centers around the IUCN Red List of Threatened species and investigates the evidential standards to which the IUCN committees and sub-committees must abide in assessing the extinction risk of threatened species. The second talk by Emma Cavazzoni discusses the instruments and analytical techniques that connect communities working on data at a local scale. This presentation addresses a case study on plant-pathogen interaction in Italy and explores the data journey beyond the local dimension. The third talk by Paola Castaño highlights the role of institutionalization, as a combination of formal and informal practices, in the creation of data communities. Drawing on a study of the Analysis Working Groups in NASA’s GeneLab, this presentation emphasizes how data sharing brings together different kinds of expertise and proposes some conceptual tasks for the specification of the working concept of “data communities”. Finally, professor Beckett Sterner will offer an overall comment on the three talks.

Bringing together philosophical and sociological perspectives on conservation, crop science, and space biology, this session is meant to open the stage for thinking about data communities pluralistically.


Ankeny, Rachel A., and Sabina Leonelli. “Repertoires: A Post-Kuhnian Perspective on Scientific Change and Collaborative Research.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 60 (2016): 18–28.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Specificity of the Scientific Field and the Social Conditions of the Progress of Reason.” Social Science Information 14, no. 6 (1975): 19–47.

Collins, Harry, Robert Evans, Martin Innes, Eric B. Kennedy, Will Mason-Wilkes, and John McLevey. The Face-to-Face Principle: Science, Trust, Democracy and the Internet. Cardiff University Press, 2022.

Crane, Diana. Invisible Colleges: Diffusion of Knowledge in Scientific Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago P., 1972.

Fleck, Ludwik. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Repr. 11. Aufl. Sociology of Science. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008.

Knorr-Cetina, K. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fourth edition. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Massimi, Michela. Perspectival Realism. Oxford Studies in Philos Science Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.

Roe, Sarah M. “The Journey from Discovery to Scientific Change: Scientific Communities, Shared Models, and Specialised Vocabulary.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 47–67.

Oreskes, Naomi. Why Trust Science? University Center for Human Values Series. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Shapin, Steven. A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994.