Philosopher Leads Study to Find Keys to High-Impact Science Across Disciplines
(Photo by 12019 from Pixabay)

Scientists conduct experiments, but science itself is also a kind of experiment. How is it that groups of experts working together can make discoveries that change our lives? Does it matter if their training and ways of doing science are radically different?

A project recently funded with a $2.2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation is studying discovery and innovation across multidisciplinary teams of scientists working to understand various facets of agency and purpose across all forms of life. The results will provide insight for how to structure future research programs for the greatest potential innovation.

“Philosophers of science like me have increasingly wanted to understand how scientific practice works in action,” said James Griesemer, a distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science who leads the project. “We're watching for novel forms of organization that are going to drive discovery and innovation.”

Studying research seeking to define agency and purpose

James Griesemer
James Griesemer, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy

Griesemer’s project is designed to study the John Templeton Foundation’s Agency, Directionality & Function research program. This program encompasses a suite of 24 projects organized in seven thematic clusters. Griesemer and his team are studying how teams of biologists, physicists, mathematicians and philosophers on each of these projects work together to understand agency and related concepts in living systems. 

The topics across those 24 projects range from cancer and cellular development to behavioral plasticity and ecology and evolution. Projects scale from single organisms to the whole Earth system. At their core is the question of whether any of these systems truly behave on their own accord, as if by choice or by self-organization.

“It becomes a kind of tricky and interesting question to understand if simple organisms like bacteria are moving toward a source of sugar because they've made a choice or because somehow mere physics makes them do it,” said Griesemer. “Those are controversial but deeply philosophical problems that scientists face every time they characterize what they're doing.”

Studying scientists working together across disciplines

The individual research teams are made up of mathematicians, physicists, biologists and scientists from many other disciplines working together rather than teams of researchers from the same discipline only. That interdisciplinary structure involving over 120 experts in their respective fields may itself give rise to insights on what makes these kinds of collaborations effective and even innovative.

“That layering of organization creates opportunities and challenges that we are studying from a sociological point of view,” said Griesemer.

For example, said Griesemer, administrative structure of the projects that emerge by necessity might create new innovations in the process of doing science itself. His team will be able to identify these new ways of doing interdisciplinary science almost in real time.

As a philosopher of science, Griesemer has built his career studying how science works. He studied genetics and biology before embarking upon his Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Chicago. It was there he first met sociologist Elihu M. Gerson, who is co-principal investigator on his project for the John Templeton Foundation. 

“Interdisciplinary research is deep in my bones,” said Griesemer. “The science that has always been the most important to me is evolutionary biology, which by nature is an integrative discipline.”

Another measure of success for these interdisciplinary projects is whether they continue beyond their initial three years of funding from the Templeton Foundation. For example, scientists might become more open to working with philosophers because it was helpful to have someone on the team who could broadly conceptualize their work. The collaborators might also find it was a waste of time. 

“We’re going to see whether their ideas changed after three years on this grant and whether they think differently about these big concepts of agency, directionality and function,” said Griesemer. “We want to understand what kinds of mechanisms of interaction, communication and organization are critical to those collaborations carrying on.”

The project, “A Sociological Analysis of the Science of Purpose Project,” is funded by the Templeton Foundation for $2,261,633 over three years.

Primary Category