Towards a Manifesto for Experimental Collaborations between Social and Natural Scientists

Collaboration between scientists, engineers and social scientists is now commonplace. We, the authors, have been involved in a variety of such engagements in a number of situations, from the macro level of governmental policy down to the micro interactions of a laboratory experiment. These engagements became the subject matter of an ESRC-funded seminar series concerned with documenting and reflecting on social scientists’ experiences of collaboration. We found that social scientists were often positioned as being responsible for determining the ethical and social consequences of the technical developments rather than as collaborative partners in the production of knowledge. We found that this focus on the potential risks of a technology meant we are often portrayed as joyless, humourless ‘nay sayers’. Thus our roles in projects are often limited to narrow, prescriptive positions that have been entrenched through funding arrangements, disciplinary and institutional boundaries, governance regimes and local politics.

This is not where we want to be, and we believe that this model does not work for natural scientists either. Instead of dividing up responsibility for the technical and social along lines of natural and social sciences, we see them as deeply entwined. This means both natural and social scientists can work together to produce a critical and human understanding of how design, development and application of new technologies are accomplished. We can make technologies and science more socially responsive and relevant by understanding the dynamics of lab work and innovation to identify where choices are made and where alternative routes could be taken. We can start an open dialogue that goes beyond narrow framings of environmental and health risks. We can develop new ways of thinking about processes of innovation that recognise the complex interactions between science and wider society, between experts of various kinds and between interested parties from all positions. We seek to enrich the processes of scientific imagination, discovery and invention. Importantly, we want to embrace the exuberance of scientific promise and practice, to have fun in working together, and to make something more than the sum of our parts. To do this we need to experiment with collaborative forms that do more than pay lip service to interdisciplinarity; we have to create something progressive and vital.

On 19th June at Kings College London, natural scientists, engineers and social scientists interested in synthetic biology gathered to discuss some proposed principles for negotiating and practicing collaborations that we had initially drafted to stimulate discussion at the event. Everyone was fruitfully engaged and it became clear that to move ahead we need more discussion, more comments and more engagement.  We now put these principles forward as an invitation to further dialogue.

The purpose of such principles would be that if they are (partially) adopted they could help us negotiate the terms of specific collaborations and – through practicing them in our engagements –  make it more likely that we would produce desired outcomes of our collaborative projects. The principles are not final. They are our first statement in what we hope will be an on-going and vibrant discussion involving diverse groups of natural scientists, engineers, research funders, social scientists and others.

We have not determined how the principles will develop or what form they may take in the future. Your comments and ideas will be invaluable in helping shape the discussion and in guiding us towards a collaboratively produced response to collaborations.

Seven proposed guiding principles for experimental collaborations between natural scientists and social scientists

Undertaking collective experiments: If social and natural scientists want to produce more desired outcomes from their collaborations, we need to experiment together with different forms of collaboration.  Our existing ways of interacting are often organised around a division of labour that is not useful for either side. We have to experiment with novel ways of working collaboratively that are more meaningful, productive and exciting for everyone.

Practicing reflexivity: Reflexivity asks ‘why’ questions, such as “Why are we doing this?” Our collaborations need to take these questions seriously. Reflexivity is not about an outsider coming in to evaluate a project and is not a process of interrogation and adjudication. Instead, we want to foster on-going dialogue about decision-making, training and innovation; about long-term goals, imagined futures and implicit assumptions about the application of science and technology. Reflexivity is already part of the methodology of science and shows that science is a social as well as a technical project.

Promoting pluralism: Being reflexive means being open to exploring choices and alternatives in collaborations, laboratory work and technological development. As such, science is best understood as a fundamentally human activity, in which options are open for discussion and are not predetermined by existing institutional frameworks, particular interest groups or taken-for-granted visions of the future. Pluralism reminds us to listen to the multiple voices in science and the societies within which it exists.

Enriching understanding of science and technology: Current narratives of science are often impoverished. Much work in social science has developed useful ways to bring nuance to our understanding of science. A pluralist, reflexive science should enrich debates about scientific and wider societal expectations, models of innovation, and the dynamics of application, diffusion and commercialisation. This can lead to more socially responsive and relevant science and technology that recognises much of the hidden labour that goes into the processes of scientific and technological development.

Ensuring good governance: We need to frame debates about the governance of science and technology in more sophisticated terms and not be tempted by either formulaic narratives of technical promise/social peril, or cast governance as a barrier to innovation. Instead we should understand good governance as helping promote knowledge and translation. This requires open and honest dialogue that involves all parties in a collaboration.

Taking risks: We must be bold in our experimental collaborations and take risks to make them work. However, experiments often fail. We have to be comfortable with failure and sometimes with conflict. We should be willing to start again with different forms of interaction, but remain committed to working together. Embracing risk must extend to funding schemes, which often act to channel collaborations into the well-trodden, safe routes that lack adventure.

Being hospitable: To develop these new ways of collaborating, and to stick with collaborations even when there are differences, we have to be hospitable to each other.  Being hospitable means having an open and neighbourly disposition. We need to find ways of talking about and negotiating how we take risks, establish experimentation and promote pluralism. We should be attentive to power dynamics and acknowledge that care has to be taken to ensure everyone is afforded hospitality. We should respect our differences in expertise and ways of working, and take mutual responsibility for the care of collaborative relationships, for the research, and for its outputs.

To contribute to the discussion and help develop the manifesto: please add a comment.

You can see the comments here

Please cite this document as:

Andy Balmer, Kate Bulpin, Jane Calvert, Matthew Kearnes, Adrian Mackenzie, Claire Marris, Paul Martin, Susan Molyneux-Hodgson and Pablo Schyfter (2012)  Towards a Manifesto for Experimental Collaborations between Social and Natural Scientists. Accessible at: