Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Australian Research Council
British Pharmacological Society
Professor Sabina Leonelli
Professor of Philosophy and History of Science
Byrne House FF12
Note on Publications & Open Access: I support Open Access and my publications since 2010 are freely accessible from the Data Studies site, the ORE site of the University of Exeter, and (when not outrageously expensive) in Gold Open Access format thanks to the generous support of ERC and ESRC. Orcid ID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7815-6609
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, and a Turing Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute in London. I am also Editor-in-Chief of the international journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, together with Professor Giovanni Boniolo. 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 construction of semantics to enable data linkage for automated mining in the plant sciences and biomedicine; and  the epistemology and history of the use of organisms as research models, with a focus on experimental organisms and on the plant sciences.
Funded projects: From 2014 to 2019, this work is supported by the European Research Council Starting Grant DATA_SCIENCE. From May 2019 to December 2021, I will lead the Turing Project "From Field Data to Global Indicators: Towards a Framework for Intelligent Plant Data Linkage". 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 Understanding the Use of Digital Forensics in Policing in England and Wales, led by Dana Wilson-Kovacs (2018-2021). I was recently a Co-I on the ESRC Research Grant Social Sensing of Health and Wellbeing Impact from Pollen and Pollution, led by Hywel Williams (2017-2018); the Leverhulme Trust Grant Beyond the Digital Divide, led by Brian Rappert, which examined data practices in the developing world (2015-2017); and the British Pharmacological Society project The Future Landscape of in vivo Skills, led by Gail Davies (2016-2017).
Books: My book Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study, published by Chicago University Press, won the Lakatos Award in 2018. Links to all reviews are here. I am currently working on an expanded English version of my more recent book La Ricerca Scientifica nell'Era dei Big Data (published in 2018 by Meltemi in Italian and forthcoming in 2019 with Mimesis in French).
Science policy roles: I am interested in the implementation of Open Science and am regularly consulted by national governments and scientific societies and institutions on this issue. I am a member of the Open Science Policy Platform of the European Commission (2016-2020) and a scientific advisor to the European Open Science Cloud Pilot Project. In 2017 and 2018, I served as a key expert in the Mutual Learning Exercise on Open Science (Policy Support Facility) of the DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission. I am an alumni of the Global Young Academy, where from 2015 to 2017 I led the Open Science working group within the Research Environment thematic area, and whose voice I continue to represent in my work with the EU Directorate-General for Research and Business. In March 2018 we launched a groundbreaking report on "Global Access to Open Software: The Forgotten Pillar of Open Science", based on a survey carried out by GYA members in Ghana, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
Service to the history and philosohy of science: I am a board member of the PhilSci-Archive (the Open Access archive for the philosophy of science) and the executive committees of 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 2018 edition I organised with Thomas Reydon). I am also the senior co-Chair of the EPSA Women's Caucus (2015-2019), and from 2013 to 2017 I served as a member of the steering committee of the European Philosophy of Science Association. I am part of the editorial board of the journals Science, Technology & Human Values, Big Data & Society and Data, and the philosophy newsletter The Reasoner. I help to coordinate the UK network for the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Science.
Service to the natural sciences: 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", which resulted in the publication of a paper on data management practices in Nature Plants in 2017. I am also on the advisory board of the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage Database (SAIL) and the European Arabidopsis Stock Centre. In Exeter, I am on the steering committee of the Wellcome-Trust funded Translational Research Exchange and the Animal Nexus Collaborative project.
Talks and Visiting Positions: 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, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Science Forum, the Indian Statistical Institute, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the International Data Curation Conference, the Philosophy of Science Association Public Forum 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), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (project "Sciences of the Archive", 2014; Colloquium visitor, 2019) and the Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science in Gent, Belgium (2018).
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 methods across data-intensive research fields, particularly biology and biomedicine. I am 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 knowledge integration and discovery. From 2014 to 2019, this research is funded by the European Research Council and conducted in collaboration with Niccolo Tempini. Details, relevant publications and multiple resources can be found on the Data Studies website.
2. The History and Epistemology of Organism in Research (with Prof Rachel Ankeny): with funding from the ARC Discovery Grant "Organisms and Us" (2016-2020), we investigate the use of organisms in 20th and 21st century research, its influence on the development and content of biological knowledge, and the epistemic status of organisms as models. We are working on a monograph, provisionally entitled 'Thinking with Organisms'.
3. Open Science, Open Data and Data Ethics: 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). With Rebecca Lovell, I am currently analysing the notion of fairness in data re-use and the extent to which social media users approve of the use of their posts as research data.
4. Translational Research in Global Plant Science: I investigate the ways in which the choice to focus on particular species and data management tools 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 circulation, standardisation and use of Big Data around crops. This case enables me to reflect broadly on the historical roots, characteristics and locations of 21st century biology, and particularly on the relation between knowledge production, resources and the infrastructure and institutionalisation of research around the world; and between basic and applied modes of research in plant science.
Research group links
- Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences
- Department of Sociology and Philosophy
- Science and Technology Studies
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
- 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).
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
Impact of automation and artificial intelligence on knowledge production and scientific methods
Projects concerning plant biology, including its relations to agriculture and data science
Global governance, science and democracy
General philosophy of science (especially philosophy of science in practice)
Science and Technology Studies
Pragmatism and empiricism
As first supervisor / co-supervisor:
Gregor Halfmann ("Data Processing in Oceanography")
Elis Jones ("The Significance of 'Value' to Coral Reef Scientists")
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")
Necmiye Ackali (University of Exeter, experimental philosophy)
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 and the automation of knowledge production, the management of data centres and infrastructures, the 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 2020, 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. I acted as the Chair of its Open Science Publishing Working Group in 2017 and the Rapporteur for its Integrated Advice (which produced the OSPP-REC for the Competitiveness Council) in 2018. I have also been a key expert in the Mutual Learning Exercise in "Open Science: Incentives and Rewards" 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 took 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 was an elected member to the Global Young Academy where I led the Working Group on Open Science. Key outputs included the GYA positions statements on Open Science and Open Data, and the GYA Report on Global Access to Research Software. In the fall of 2015, I represented the GYA at the World Science Forum in Budapest, and in 2017 I delivered a keynote lecture at the World Science Forum in Jordan (full text here). 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.
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 (2015-2019).
Finally, I am part of the steering committees of the following organisations within my field: the PhilSci-Archive, 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). From 2014 to 2017, I served on the steering committee of the European Philosophy of Science Association.
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.
I have been funded by several public and private bodies, including the European Research Council, the ESRC, the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, to carry out a variety of projects in the history, philosophy and social studies of biology, biomedicine and data science. Details of current projects, publications and other resources (including media, blogs and videos of lectures) are available here.
Aside from my main scholarly activities as a philosopher and historian of science, I have a strong interest in science policy and governance, inspired by my scholarly work on the epistemic, social and ethical dimensions of automation and data-intensive research. I have authored several policy reports, including one on the impact of big data on biomedicine for the Swiss government in 2017, one on Global Access to Research Software for the Global Young Academy in 2018, and three reports for the European Commission Mutual Learning Exercise "Open Science: Incentives and Rewards" in 2017 and 2018.
From 2012 to 2017 I was a member of the Global Young Academy, where I coordinated the GYA Working Group on Open Science and co-authored the position statements on Open Science and Open Data. I continue to represent the GYA as a nominated member of the Open Science Policy Platform of the European Commission until 2020, where I chaired the Open Science Publishing working group in 2017 (on whose advice the European Commission launched the upcoming European Publishing Platform) and acted as rapporteur for the Integrated Advice working group in 2018 (producing the OSPP-REC, recommandations for the Competitiveness Council of the European Commission that were adopted in May 2018).
From 2013 to 2018, I serve as Associate Editor of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. I also serve on the executive boards of 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 Science, Technology and Human Values; The Reasoner, Big Data and Society, Data and Medicina e Storia. From 2013 to 2017 I served on the steering committee of the European Philosophy of Science Association (EPSA) and I am the Senior Co-Chair of the EPSA Women's Caucus (2015-2019). 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 and I am currently Academic Lead and Inclusivity officer for the department. 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, including a new module on Data Ethics and Governance as well as a long-running module on Cultures of the Life Sciences, but as I am on research leave to lead an ERC Starting Grant, the majority of my teaching activities will resume in 2020.
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, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society of Biology and the Society for the Philosophy of Information. I frequently 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 and our two children.