Varieties of Collaboration

During the three years I spent in Jill’s lab, we experimented with other modes of collaboration beyond my weekly participation in lab meetings. Some worked very well, resulting in new research activities or insightful conversations, or providing other benefits to one or both of our careers. Like the experiments in the lab, though, plenty of our experiments in collaboration did not bear fruit.

It worked well when I used my presentation time in the meetings to give overviews of a particular domain of history or philosophy of science that was relevant to the lab’s research—for example, an overview of the arc of research in chemical bonding in inorganic materials from the early days of the quantum theory of chemical bonds to the present, or an overview of the realism debate, or of inter-theory relations in the physical sciences. It worked extremely well when Jill joined my dissertation committee as my external reader, and she became one of my primary mentors in the dissertation. Her expertise assured my philosophical readers that I was representing the science accurately, and her curiosity about conceptual questions often inspired new directions in my research. And it worked well when I worked with a couple of her graduate students to improve the broader impacts narratives in their grant applications, advising them on how to “zoom out” and think about the potential impacts of their research on human lives outside the lab, as well as helping them to outline their narratives.

It did not work well when I developed a qualitative-analysis style survey to determine the role of hypotheses in the experiments done in the lab. Even though I recruited social scientist colleagues to help me design and analyze the survey, the results did not tell me anything I could use in my research because I did not have the training to translate the data into elements of the kind of argument I knew how to make. One lesson I learned over and over was that contributing to the lab as a philosopher was distinct from contributing as an STS researcher. That said, it also did not work particularly well when I presented on my own research in lab meetings as I would to an audience of philosophers, since in those presentations I devote a lot of time to explaining the science, and the science was familiar to the lab. Finally, it did not work when Jill and I tried to build a wiki together to share information about experimental protocols such as the one described above. We had a hope that we could improve accessibility for procedural information that did not make it into the publication record, thereby broadening and diversifying the community of researchers able to perform experiments in nanoscience. The idea was a good one, we both still believe, but there were simply too many barriers to getting it off the ground, since neither of us were accomplished programmers or wiki editors.

There is a pattern behind these successes and failures. When things went badly, it was usually because one of us, either myself or the scientists, was trying to be something other than what we came into the collaboration to be: me, a philosopher, and Jill and the lab, nanochemists. The times I tried to employ methodology' from the social sciences, I wound up with pages of scribbled observations or piles of survey data, neither of which I could transform into philosophical insight. The times Jill’s lab tried to play the philosophical audience, their feedback was more about how I was introducing topics in nanoscience than about my' philosophical arguments. When we got together and tried to be some combination of coders, textbook writers, and community organizers, even the best of intentions could not rescue our efforts from falling flat.

On the other hand, our successes came when we were true to our distinct disciplinary trainings and interests, and when we were able to recognize, through the lenses of those backgrounds, something of value to one or both parties being offered across the aisle. Philosophers of science are explicitly trained to seek out the epistemically and ontologically puzzling in pieces of scientific research, so I knew going in that Jill and her lab, by virtue of doing interesting science, had things to say that I wanted to hear. It was an interest in the philosophical puzzles of nanoscience that led me to her classroom in the first place, and I had no difficulty' finding the import for my research in what the lab was doing.

For Jill and the chemists, though, being able to recognize the value of philosophy' of science in general, and of my' research in particular, was not something to which their backgrounds had predisposed them. As discussed above, Jill was naturally curious and collaborative about conceptual questions, so I was able to gain a foothold with her. For the rest of the lab, it was easier for them to see the value in “Julia questions” than to get interested in questions of reductionism and realism. While that fact would have surprised me in 2011, it seems obvious today, since the conceptual questions I asked about the lab’s experiments did sometimes have direct bearing on how research was carried out—and even when they didn’t, they were questions about a subject, namely, the lab’s research projects, in which the other lab members were already invested.

 
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