Dr Sabina Leonelli

Associate Professor (Philosophy of Science)


01392 725137

Byrne House FF12


Note on Publications & Open Access: you can access and download all my recent publications on the Data Studies site.

Office Hours: Mondays 9-11 (but please check by email beforehand as I am often away for research).

I serve as the Co-Director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis), where I lead the Data Studies research strand. My research spans the fields of history and philosophy of biology, science and technology studies and general philosophy of science, and currently focuses on the philosophy, history and sociology of data-intensive science, especially the research processes, scientific outputs and social embedding of Open Science, Open Data and Big Data; and the epistemology and history of the use of organisms in research.

From 2014 to 2019, this work is supported by the European Research Council Starting Grant DATA_SCIENCE. I am also a Co-I on the the ARC Discovery Grant Organisms and Us: How Living Things Help Us to Understand Our World, led by Rachel Ankeny (2016-2020), and the ESRC Research Grant Social Sensing of Health and Wellbeing Impact from Pollen and Pollution, led by Hywel Williams (2017-2018); and I was recently a Co-I on the Leverhulme Trust Grant Beyond the Digital Divide, led by Brian Rappert, which examined data practices in the developing world, and the British Pharmacological Society project The Future Landscape of in vivo Skills, led by Gail Davies.

My book Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study was recently published by Chicago University Press.

I am the Associate Editor of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, a member of the Open Science Policy Platform of the European Commission, a key expert in the Mutual Learning Exercise on Open Science (Policy Support Facility) of the DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission, a board member of the European Open Science Cloud Pilot Project and the PhilSci-Archive (the Open Access archive for the philosophy of science) and a member of the executive committees of the European Philosophy of Science Association, the UK Network for the Integrated History and Philosophy of Science, the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice and the European Advanced School for the Philosophy of Biology (whose next edition I will organise in 2018 with Thomas Reydon). I am also the senior co-Chair of the EPSA Women's Caucus. I am an elected member to the Global Young Academy, I lead the Open Science working group within the Research Environment thematic area. I serve as an ex officio member of the steering committee of GARNet, for which I produced a report on data dissemination practices in plant science and recently organised the conference "From Big Data to Discovery". I sit on the editorial board of the journals Big Data & Society and Data, and the philosophy newsletter The Reasoner. I am a member of the Royal Society of Biology, and I help to coordinate the UK network for the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Science. I have been invited to present my work to a variety of audiences across several countries and institutions, including numerous leading universities, the Royal Society, the European Commission, the European Research Council, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Science Forum, the Indian Statistical Institute and the Field Museum. I have held visiting positions at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Evolution and Cognition (2005), the University of Minnesota (Centre for the Philosophy of Science, 2012) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (project "Sciences of the Archive", 2014).

My research is divided into four strands:

1. The Epistemology of Data-Intensive Science: I explore the epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying the choice and use of taxonomies, theories, models and experimental methods in data-intensive biology and biomedicine. I am also interested in how collective modes of inquiry and division of labor, as instantiated through data infrastructures, affect scientific modes of understanding; and in how tools for data dissemination enable integration and discovery. From 2014 to 2019, this research is funded by the European Research Council. Details and relevant publications can be found on the Data Studies website.

2. The History and Epistemology of Model Organism Research (with Prof Rachel Ankeny): with funding from the ARC Discovery Grant "Organisms and Us" (2016-2020), we investigate the use of model organisms in the 20th and 21st centuries, its influence on the development and content of biological knowledge, and the epistemic status of model organisms as models. We are working on a monograph, provisionally entitled 'Thinking with Model Organisms: A Philosophical Approach to Life in the Laboratory'.

Sample publications:

Ankeny, R.A. and Leonelli, S. (2016) Repertoires: A Post-Kuhnian Approach to Scientific Change and Research Collaboration. Studies in the History and the Philosophy of Science.

Leonelli, S. and Ankeny, R.A. (2015) Repertoires: How to Transform a Project into a Research Community. BioScience.

Leonelli, S., Ramsden, E., Nelson, N. and Ankeny, R.A. (2014) Making Organisms Model Humans: Situated Models in Alcohol Research. Science in Context.

Leonelli, S. and Ankeny, R.A. (2012) Re-Thinking Organisms: The Epistemic Impact of Databases on Model Organism Biology. Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43(1): 29-36.

Ankeny, R.A. and Leonelli, S. (2011) What is so special about model organisms? Studies in the History and the Philosophy of Science: Part A, 42 (2): 313-323.

Leonelli, S. (2008) Performing Abstraction. Two Ways of Modelling Arabidopsis thaliana. Biology and Philosophy, 23, 4: 509-528.

Leonelli, S. (2007) Growing Weed, Producing Knowledge. An Epistemic History of Arabidopsis thaliana. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 29, 2: 55-87.

3. Open Science and Data Sharing: I am interested in the relation between the current push for openness in scientific funding and publishing, and contemporary research practice. What counts as good science within an Open Science framework, and how do we measure it? This relates to my work within the EU Open Science Policy Platform, Global Young Academy and GARNet, and it has been funded by a GYA project Award on Global Access to Open Software (2015-2016), an ESRC Cross-Linking Grant on Open Science and Open Innovation (2013-2014), a Leverhulme Trust Research Grant on data sharing and the digital divide with Brian Rappert, Ann Kelly and Louise Bezuidenhout (2014-2016) and an ESRC Research Grant with Hywel Williams, Ben Wheeler and Lora Fleming (2017-2018).

Sample publications:

Bezuidenhout, L., Leonelli, S., Kelly, A. and Rappert, B (2016) Beyond the Digital Divide: Towards a Situated Approach to Open Data. Science and Public Policy. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scw036.

Levin, N. and Leonelli, S. (2016) How Does One “Open” Science? Questions of Value in Biological Research. Science, Technology and Human Values. http://sth.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/10/13/0162243916672071.full.pdf+html.

Bezuidenhout, L., Kelly, A., Leonelli, S. and Rappert, B. (2016) “$100 Is Not Much To You”: Open Access and Neglected Accessibilities for Data-Driven Science in Africa. Critical Public Health.

Levin, N., Leonelli, S., Weckowska, D., Castle, D., and Dupré, J. (2016) How Do Scientists Understand Openness? Exploring the Relationship between Open Science Policies and Research Practice. Bulletin for Science and Technology Studies 36(2): 128-141. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0270467616668760.

Leonelli, S., Spichtinger, D. and Prainsack, B. (2015) Sticks AND Carrots: Incentives for a Meaningful Implementation of Open Science Guidelines. Geo, 1.

Ankeny, R. and Leonelli, S. (2015) Valuing Data in Postgenomic Biology: How Data Donation and Curation Practices Challenge the Scientific Publication System, in Stevens H, Richardson S (eds) Post-Genomics, Duke University Press.

Leonelli, S. (2013) Why the Current Insistence on Open Access to Scientific Data? Big Data, Knowledge Production and the Political Economy of Contemporary Biology. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society.

Leonelli, S. (2013) Global Data for Local Science: Assessing the Scale of Data Infrastructures in Biological and Biomedical Research. BioSocieties.

Ankeny, R.A. and Leonelli, S. (2011) Bioethics Authorship in Context: How Trends in Biomedicine Challenge Bioethics. The American Journal of Bioethics, 11(10): 22-24.

Bastow, R. and Leonelli, S. (2010) Sustainable digital infrastructure. EMBO Reports, 11(10): 730-735.

4. Translational Research in Plant Science: I investigate the ways in which the choice to focus on particular species within the last fifty years of plant science in Europe and the United States is affecting current attempts to establish translational research programmes in this area, and more generally the international standardisation of data sharing tools around crops. This case, together with my work on bioinformatics, enables me to reflect broadly on the historical roots, characteristics and locations of 21st century biology, and particularly on the relation between the knowledge that is produced and the recent changes in the infrastructure and institutionalisation of research; and between basic and applied modes of research in plant science.

Sample publications:

Leonelli, S. (2013) Integrating Data to Produce New Knowledge: Three Modes of Integration in Plant Science. Studies in the History and the Philosophy of the Biological and the Biomedical Sciences. Doi 10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.03.02.

Sunder Rajan, K. and Leonelli, S. (2013) Introduction: Biomedical Trans-Actions, Postgenomics and Knowledge/Value. Public Culture.

Leonelli, S., Charnley, B, Webb, A and Ruth, B. (2012) Under One Leaf. A Historical Perspective on the UK Plant Science Federation. New Phytologist 195(1): 10-13.

Research group links

Research interests

I pursue an approach to philosophy of science that is grounded on the empirical study of scientific practices, as informed by historical research, ethnographic methods used in the social and anthropological studies of science and technology, and collaboration with practicing scientists.I have a strong interest in the following topics:

  • Data-Intensive Science and Practices of Data Sharing and Re-Use (see www.datastudies.eu)
  • Open Science and Open Data
  • The Regulatory Role and Epistemic Impact of Bioinformatics in Biology and Biomedicine
  • Bio-Ontologies
  • History and Epistemic Status of Model Organism Research
  • History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Biology
  • The Role of Embodied Knowledge and Skills in Scientific Understanding
  • Abstraction and Modelling Processes in Biology
  • Distributed Cognition and Division of Scientific Labor
  • Unity, Disunity and Integration in Science
  • Early American Pragmatism
  • Science Policy and the Globalisation and Political Economy of Scientific Research

 I also taught bioethics to second-year undergraduate students in the College of Biosciences (2009-2013).

Research supervision

Philosophy, history and social studies of data-intensive science, bioinformatics, experimental research on organisms and model systems, translational research and Open Science

Role of digital technologies in shaping scientific research and communication

Projects concerning plant biology, including its relations to agriculture

Global governance, science and democracy

General philosophy of science (especially philosophy of science in practice)

Science and Technology Studies


Research students

As first supervisor / co-supervisor:

Gregor Halfmann ("Data Processing in Oceanography")

As second supervisor: 

Miguel Lopez Paleta (UNAM, Mexico; "The Chicken as an Experimental Organism")

Stefano Canali (University of Hannover, "Causality and Epistemology of Data in Exposomics Research")

Dook Sheperd (University of Adelaide, "The Honeybee as a Model of Cognition")

Former PhD students:

Nicholas Binney ('History and philosophy of diagnosis: the case of heart failure', completed 2017).

James Lowe ('Normal development, preformation and epigenesis in early 20th century experimental biology', completed 2015).

Tarquin Holmes ('Wildtype in the history of biology', completed 2016)

Jo Donaghy ("Researchers' Assumptions and Mathematical Models: A Philosophical Study of Metabolic Systems Biology", completed 2014).

Pietro Berti ('Fuelling Expectations: UK Biofuel Policy', completed 2014).

Sara Green (Aarhus, Denmark; 'Systems biology and the quest for organising principles'', completed 2014).

Luca Iori (PhD at the University of Bologna; 'Nazareno Strampelli and the development of agricultural genetics in Italy, 1910-1950', completed 2013).

Aleksandra Sojic (PhD at SEMM, Milan; 'Bio-ontologies and breast cancer research', completed 2012)

External impact and engagement

I am very interested in the social and political roles of science (understood in the broad sense of 'wissenschaft'), and keen to engage with policy makers, publishers, industries and institutions involved in the governance of multidisciplinary research, in particular open science guidelines and practices, incentives and conditions for data science, management of data centres and infrastructures, implementation of Open Data and Open Science, the transformation of Big Data into knowledge, and questions relating to translational research and the digital divide. I regularly tweet on my engagement activities as @sabinaleonelli .

Unti 2018, I am a member of the Open Science Policy Platform instituted by the European Commission in 2016 to assist with the implementation of Open Science policies, and the Chair of its Open Science Publishing Working Group. I am also a key expert on the Mutual Learning Exercise in Open Science organised by the DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission for 14 member states (Austria, Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland), which takes place in 2017-2018, and a member of the Science Board of the European Open Science Cloud pilot project (2017-2019).

I have been invited to present my work to a variety of learned societies, funding bodies and governmental agencies (such as the Royal Society, the European Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Swiss National Research Council, the National Library of Medicine, the AHRC, the Indian Statistical Institute), as well as prominent Open Science conferences and policy events in Europe (e.g. EU Presidency Amsterdam Open Science Conference, April 2016; Berlin 13 Conference Open Science, March 2017), and I regularly participate in public consultations by the UK government, European Commission and international organisations such as OECD and ICSU. In November 2017, I will give a plenary address on the social impact of digital technologies at the World Science Forum 2017 conference in Jordan.

Until 2017, I am an elected member to the Global Young Academy where I lead the Working Group on Open Science. In the fall of 2015, I represented the GYA at the World Science Forum in Budapest. In 2016, I co-chaired the Position Statement on Open Data by European Young Academies of Science and the GYA, and presented it to EU Commissioner Moedas at the European Commission Open Science Conference in Amsterdam.

Since 2009 I also serve as an ex officio member of the steering committee of GARNet, for which I produced a report on data dissemination practices in plant science, and with whom I hosted the workshop "From Big Data to Discovery" in April 2016.

You can listen to a summary of my views on Open Data in this SAGE podcast, released in September 2013, and this LSE Impact Blog on "To what are we opening science?", from May 2015.

I discussed the philosophy of data science in this Mendelpod interview, recorded in April 2014, and this edition of the "Philosophy of Data" series of the LSE Impact Blog, published in January 2015.

I am also strongly committed to enhancing the visibility and numbers of women in science as well as the humanities, and I am senior co-Chair of the Women's Caucus of the European Philosophy of Science Association.

Finally, I am part of the steering committees of the following organisations within my field: the PhilSci-Archive, The European Philosophy of Science Association (EPSA), the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP), the UK Network for Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (UK iHPS) and the European Advanced School for Philosophy of Biology (EASPB).


I moved from Italy to London in 1997, to undertake a BSc course in History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science at the STS Department of University College London. Thanks to my great teachers, those three years had a crucial influence on my intellectual development. I then earned an MSc in History and Philosophy of Science at the London School of Economics and I worked as a research assistant to Hasok Chang in the 'Measurement' project at the Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science. I carried out my doctoral research in the Netherlands as part of the project ‘Understanding Scientific Understanding’ based at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, with Henk de Regt and Hans Radder. Between 2002 to 2007, I served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Graduate Journal of Social Science and I followed the training provided by the WTMC (Netherlands Graduate School for Science, Technology and Modern Culture). Before landing in Exeter in 2008, I worked as a research officer in the Leverhulme/ESRC project ‘How Well Do ‘Facts’ Travel?’ based at the Department of Economic History of the London School of Economics and headed by Mary Morgan.

From 2013 to 2016, I serve as Associate Editor of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. I also serve on the executive boards of the European Philosophy of Science Association, the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice, the PhilSci-Archive (the open access archive for philosophy of science), the plant community GARNet and the journals The Reasoner, Big Data and Society, Data and Medicina e Storia. Until 2017 I am a member of the Global Young Academy, where I coordinated the GYA position on Open Science in 2012 and the statement on Globalisation of Research in 2013. Further, I am involved in the co-ordination of the UK Network for Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (meeting annually), the European Advanced Seminar in the Philosophy of the Life Sciences (meeting biannually) and the network for the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Science in the UK.

In the past, I have coordinated the postgraduate teaching in SPA. At the undergraduate level, I have offered an 'experimental' course to third-year philosophy students, in which they got to do original research and produce professional papers (the best outputs are published on the digital platform Pragmatism Tomorrow). I continue to teach classes at MA level, but as I am on research leave to lead an ERC Starting Grant, the majority of my teaching activities will resume in 2019-20.

I am a member of the Philosophy of Science Association, the European Philosophy of Science Association, the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology, the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology and the Society for the Philosophy of Information. I serve as a referee for several journals in the philosophy, history and social studies of science, as well as national funding bodies from the UK, USA, Italy, Netherlands, France and Belgium.

I live in Exeter with my husband Michel Durinx and our two young children.