Finding Our Way

How does one build a program that productively integrates people across disciplines, given busy schedules, different locations on campus, some serious translational gaps given different disciplinary languages and expertise, and competing commitments for everyone?1 Most of the Pls ran labs that were only partially funded by the CNT (e.g., funding for one graduate student). While they were committed to the Center’s interdisciplinary projects, their attention was inevitably distributed across CNT and non-CNT supported projects. The same was true for the philosophers, who had regular teaching obligations, administrative duties and, for the graduate students, coursework and qualifying papers to complete, most of which had little or nothing to do with the content of the CNT work.

Finding pathways to successful integration demanded flexibility, persistence, creativity, reflexivity, and vigilance. We had to be open to learning, humble about our skills, and able to translate matters of ethical significance into plain language. Even in a context where scientists recognized the need for input on ethical issues (vs. getting a top-down mandate from a funder or institution), we had to work to show the value of philosophical content, figure out ways to integrate it into the ongoing science and engineering work without sacrificing the rigors of our discipline, work to make our “products” intelligible in the world of engineered devices and electrodes, and remain nimble enough to shift directions when funders demanded restructuring or a new scientific focus. Each of these issues will be taken up in the next section.

Interestingly, the initial interview project—conceived in a desperate attempt simply to understand better what was going on within the CNT—also helped us to fulfill the first of what we would find to be our annual duty, reporting our progress to the NSF. Within the Engineering Research Center (ERC) structure, the NSF requires an annual site visit (by a select team of scientific experts and NSF administrators) to hear about Center integration, progress, and future plans. A detailed annual report of activities is produced each year, followed by an in-person series of presentations for the site visit team, with opportunities for critical questions and a poster session. The site visit team then writes a report that highlights strengths, identifies weaknesses, and ultimately makes recommendations for future funding.

Conceptual and normative philosophical work does not fit easily into the typical ERC categories specified (focused on empirical data, number of patents, conference proceedings, industry partnerships, etc.). Even producing scientific posters about our normative philosophical work was a new experience, and we struggled to fill posters and PowerPoint slides with the kinds of visuals (e.g., graphs and tables) that scientists and engineers take for granted. Unlike some of our other early efforts, the interview study provided recognizable “data” for the site visit team, and helped to make the case for areas of study the ethics group would need to pursue, at the same time as helping us to clarify our collaborative opportunities. Although we found preparation for the site visits time-consuming and stressful, we did gain perspective on what we had done, what we hoped to do, and how we might best get there. What started as an administrative burden positively influenced our philosophical vision, in some ways, by requiring a period of reflection and reassessment in advance of reporting (still, we might productively question the regularity of the cycle of administrative review and the amount of reporting required).

Since that first year (at the time of writing, we have completed our sixth year with the CSNE, now CNT), the ethics thrust has grown to a robust, integrated team—two faculty members, a full-time postdoctoral researcher, two graduate full-time research assistants (RAs), three part-time graduate fellows and several undergraduate research assistants—that produces conceptual, normative, and empirical work (in posters, presentations, blog posts, and publications) for a wide range of audiences. Our version of field philosophy is based on multiple levels of philosophical engagement with scientists and engineers, from a fully-embedded, full-time philosophy RA who has a desk in the biorobotics lab, helps to run experiments with human participants, and is a co-author on most papers from that lab, to part-time ethics fellows who occasionally meet with lab groups, develop collaborative projects, and generally work to provide a liaison between the ethics group and the scientists. We have found that increased exposure and interactive occasions—even if not always targeted specifically at ethical dialogue or problem solving—allow for the development of trust and mutual respect, a crucial foundation for any successful transdisciplinary collaboration. In many ways, just “being in the room” has value, given the opportunities for relationship building it generates, the recognition that the ethics team is always part of the conversation, and the ultimate significance of seeing each other as team members who have shared aims for producing high quality, high impact work.

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