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Why is it important to talk about the philosophy of Science?

Enlighten, engage and empower: how science relates to stakeholders and why this is important

June 18, 2019

Enlighten, engage and inspire: Paddy Sudhakar fills us in on the importance of science to its many stakeholders, ensuring that we consider the philosophy of science when designing research projects to effectively inform policy and tackle global challenges.

We are living in an era with the highest rates of access to information per capita (thanks to the boom in social media) and innovation per capita with great strides made in the scientific and technological domains. Yet, we as a species and 'civilisation' are faced with a strange paradox of climate justice, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, antibiotic resistance, and disease burdens both in terms of public health and food security. These belong to a long list of man-made challenges with global and local implications and which need to be tackled at different levels (social, economic, technological and behavioural).

A perfect example (related to my area of work in the Korcsmaros Group here at EI) of an emerging and complex disorder/disease with a global burden is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Existing evidence points to the influence of a range of intrinsic (genetics, immune system dynamics etc) and extrinsic factors (diet and its components, exposure to xenobiotics via food, water or air, lifestyle, smoking habits, westernisation, improper use of antibiotics, stress etc.)

The very fact that we are facing this paradox (rising intellectual progress versus emergence of complex global challenges) suggests that we as members of humanity need reminding of how we conduct our activities.

Given the key role of science in addressing and ameliorating global challenges, this introspection also applies to the scientific community.

In an era with the highest rates of access to information per capita, our civilisation is faced with a strange paradox of climate justice, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, antibiotic resistance and disease.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, antibiotic resistance and disease
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The very fact that we are facing this paradox (rising intellectual progress versus emergence of complex global challenges) suggests that we as members of humanity need reminding of how we conduct our activities.

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What is your philosophy of science and how did you formulate it?

With the aim of balancing the act of “doing things right” and “doing the right things”, I wanted to propose the 3 fundamental E’s which can be considered as the core guiding principles (by no means set in stone and not exclusive to other ideas) while formulating the aims and goals of scientific research.

The 3 E’s stand for Enlighten, Engage and Empower.

Scientific spirit and objectivity is based on democratic traditions and rationalism - and it is only right if we base the philosophy of science on the principle of Empowering and Engaging with stakeholders. Stakeholders include funding bodies, governmental agencies, the society and the tax-paying public at large, the scientific community, and many more, in addition to marginalized sections such as our natural world and under-represented communities. In addition to Enlightenment to which the scientific community has heavily invested in terms of activities, there is a need to reach out and listen to the stakeholders with the aim of empowering them in their day-to-day lives.

For instance, there needs to be more funding for research aimed at understanding and appreciating the beneficial role and effects of biodiversity (such as microbes in our gut) in promoting and maintaining the physiological and psychological health of human beings.

Findings from such research are expected to generate knowledge which can in turn be used to design safer products using compounds and substances that do not interfere negatively with our microbial friends in the gut.

In brief, such a shift in research strategy with a focus on empowerment that enables science and scientists to take up a proactive role rather than a reactive role when it comes to dealing with diseases and disorders of our minds and bodies.

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There needs to be more funding for research aimed at understanding and appreciating the beneficial role and effects of biodiversity (such as microbes in our gut) in promoting and maintaining the physiological and psychological health of human beings.

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How do we action this in the context of global challenges?

The underlying complex nature of the impediments which stand in the way of tackling global challenges calls for a new set of principles to accelerate actionability. Two such principles include Evidence and Empathy. Fact based empirical evidence assists multiple stakeholders such as governments and their agencies to formulate efficient and effective policy measures.

Hence, it is imperative that the scientific community engages with the governmental agencies and the political representatives to promote and support evidence based policy making. Faculty, including myself, from the Earlham Institute are actively participating in such programmes which bring scientists and other policy stakeholders together.

As far as Empathy is concerned, I recently came across its mention in the context of global challenges in the recently published World Economic Forum’s (WEC) Global Risks Report. Given the interconnected nature of global challenges/risks as outlined in the WEC report and the geographic separation of affected and unaffected populations/countries, the impetus and political will for sustainable mitigation and remediation in response to these challenges can only be created with empathy.

Therefore, I would add Empathy as a critical principle which drives actionability. For example, antibiotic resistance is driven by an array of reasons including indiscriminate use of antibiotics in the food chain and public health systems which differ from country to country. Such a complex issue can be tackled effectively only if political and scientific leadership in the less affected countries recognise and empathise with the plight of the more affected countries.

This rationale can be generalized to many of the global challenges we are faced with now.

The WEC Global Risks Report highlights empathy in the context of global challenges as a principle that drives action

The WEC Global Risks Report highlights empathy in the context of global challenges as a principle that drives action
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Given the interconnected nature of global challenges/risks as outlined in the WEC report and the geographic separation of affected and unaffected populations/countries, the impetus and political will for sustainable mitigation and remediation in response to these challenges can only be created with empathy.

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How do we put these principles into action at the Earlham Institute?

As well as working on many of the projects discussed above, we are actively engaging at every level here at EI.

We have a very active public engagement team, which has involved over 100 of our scientists over the last year alone in important engagement activities that allow us to listen to and understand the concerns of the community.

A great example of the empathetic approach to our science is the fact that much of our work is open access, and aims to increase the research capacity of less well resourced regions of the world. Our training in East Africa, for example, aims to increase bioinformatics capacity in the region, while projects on fish farming are arming farmers with the tools to breed better fish for food security.

In Colombia, too, Director of Science Federica Di Palma is leading the GROW Colombia project which aims to preserve peace in the country through conserving Colombia’s biodiversity and fostering a sustainable bioeconomy. We also are increasingly active as an Institute in affecting policy at the national and international level.

Federica Di Palma has been appointed to Colombia’s Mision Internacional de Sabios as a result of her important work there as part of Bridge Colombia and GROW Colombia. Director of EI Neil Hall, Synthetic Biology group leader Nicola Patron and Head of Research Faculty Office Christine Fosker have also been involved in discussions with the government, in particular the select committee on science and technology.

Paddy emphasises the importance of EI's public engagement events such as the recent Inside EI Open Day to enlighten, engage and empower

Inside EI - Public engagement putting principles in to practice
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We have a very active public engagement team, which has involved over 100 of our scientists over the last year alone in important engagement activities that allow us to listen to and understand the concerns of the community.

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Article author

Padhmanand Sudhakar

Postdoctoral Scientist