Advice for Initiating Collaborations

While our conversation ended up convincing Jill to let me into her class, other cues suggested to her that I was a viable potential discussant. For instance, my dissertation research was supported by a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which indicated that I had a working understanding of scientific content and that we shared institutional infrastructure. Credentials such as funding from scientific agencies or authorship of scientific talks or articles can signal to a potential collaborator that you are a member of the same epistemic community, as can doing your homework on their research and professional profile before you meet. Scientists, like many Humanists, find common ground with each other over shared subdisciplines, recognition of journal names and affiliations, attendance at the same conferences, and support from the same funding agencies. By learning about and engaging with these institutions, you can indicate your merit as a collaborator.

In a similar vein, in my many experiences explaining my research to scientists and initiating collaborations since my initial meeting with Jill, I have developed an elevator-pitch overview of what philosophy of science is, with the intention of demonstrating its value to scientific research. This cuts off the most common misconceptions of my work, namely, that I am an ethicist, that I am anti-science, or that my research employs the Continental tradition in philosophy, as many STS researchers’ work does. My spiel usually starts with the explanation that philosophy of science is about how scientific knowledge works: what allows researchers to trust the results of an experiment, how different scientific theories interact, what is considered the ultimate goal of scientific research. I find it works best to give a playful example, such as pointing out that if the goal of science is to say how the world really is, it would not be unreasonable to have a scientific discipline devoted to counting the number of blades of grass on my front lawn.

While my collaboration with Jill began within a student-teacher dynamic, most of the collaborations I have built with scientists have begun between colleagues. These typically start with a brief, in-person exchange at a meeting or event where faculty from multiple departments have gathered, or, less frequently, with a targeted email. In my current position, science departments have approached me about sharing my research in their weekly seminars, partly as an inexpensive way of filling their talk schedule. These have led to collaborative discussions, grant proposals, and shared mentoring of students.

The first of these talks took place because I met a materials engineer at a university event. We shared research interests and arranged a one-on-one meeting to discuss research, whereupon he invited me to speak at his department’s seminar. In subsequent meetings with scientists across campus, I was then able to let them know I had a seminar prepared, which has led to a few more talks, many more meetings, the development of a grant proposal, and a few extra science students in my classes. In giving talks to scientific audiences, I typically take a cue from science talks I’ve attended and, rather than sustaining a philosophical argument through 45 minutes, spend my time describing two or three of my research projects and explaining why these research results are relevant to their work. I also always use slides, and I try to make the slides more visual than they would be for a conference talk in philosophy.

I initiated most, but not all, of my present collaborations. I prepare for a first meeting by setting aside time to learn about my potential collaborator’s research. I find specific points of contact between their research interests and mine that will help me to explain my research in terms they both understand and care about. I try to familiarize myself with as many pieces of jargon ahead of time as I can, so that I don’t wind up slowing down the conversation and making myself look ignorant by asking for vocabulary clarifications. In initiating collaborations, it is often more important to convey that you know what your potential collaborator is talking about than it is to convey that you know what you are talking about.

For instance, I recently met with a traffic engineer who is interested in whether philosophy of science can help his department to prepare for the societal changes that will accompany the coming self-driving vehicle revolution. My research is well outside this area, and I don’t expect to get closer to it any time soon. But I find the subject interesting and, in general, I make a habit of taking meetings with new potential collaborators, even if I am not sure what will come of it. In prepping for the meeting, I learned that in his world “ITS” stands for “intelligent transportation system,” which encompasses everything from self-driving cars and subways that send text alerts about schedule changes to automated trucking weigh stations for trucks on the highways. I did not do any preparation to determine what is out there in philosophy of science on the specifics of the particular kind of futurist questions he had. We ended up talking for more than an hour about the potential for problems such as socioeconomic stratification and job loss associated with automated transportation, as well as benefits like empowerment and improved mobility for the presently immobile. Throughout, I was able to draw on my knowledge of value-laden science, intersectionality, and the history of unethical scientific enterprises in order to contribute to the conversation. As a result of our conversation, he agreed to give an address at an upcoming conference on socially engaged philosophy of science, as a way of advertising the set of problems he is concerned with to a wider philosophical audience.

Together, these anecdotes suggest a need, in the initiation of collaborations, for a type of flexibility that is sometimes uncharacteristic of philosophers. To borrow from a source thoroughly outside the analytic tradition, it is useful to think of these strategies as a way of attaining the Zen principle of “beginner’s mind” by taking oneself out of the typical patterns of expectation and inferential paths common within the discipline. I prefer this analogy to the economic metaphors of trading zones and exchanges of ideas that are usually associated with interdisciplinary research.

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