Major new research initiatives at the University of Sydney emphasise the ‘integrative’ nature of their work. This conference focused on what ‘integration’ is and how it can be facilitated. Participants were leading Sydney scientists, philosophers of science whose recent work has focused on integration, and social scientists studying integration and developing practical interventions to promote integration. The conference was jointly supported by the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science, the Charles Perkins Centre, and the Institute for Sustainable Solutions. The conference program is available here.
A key concept at the meeting was ‘translational integration’, a term introduced by Sabina Leonelli. This is a very different conception of integration from that found in from traditional accounts of the reduction of one science to another, or of the ‘unity of science’, and also differs from more recent work on the emergence of new fields at the intersection of different disciplines. These differences can be brought out using some apparatus introduced at the meeting by Todd Grantham: to see what is meant by ‘integration’ in any given context it is necessary to identity the units that are being integrated, the nature of the connections made between them, and the purpose for which they are being connected. Traditional discussion of reduction and the unity of science focused on scientific theories or models of broad application – units that constitute the major achievements of scientific disciplines. The connections between these units were on the same scale, with the ‘reduction’ of one theory or model to another being particularly prominent. The aim of integration was to clarify the overall structure of scientific knowledge. This is very different from translational integration.
The units of translational integration are methods, data, and specific results (or even hypotheses). The ways they are connected are often temporary and only locally valid, and the aim of integration is to design interventions. Integration of the results of research might seem an odd idea in a discussion which has often focused on integrating diverse elements in the process of research, but it does seem to be what is intended in some talk of 'integrative research. For example, in research on obesity, we have findings from, to choose just a few fields, molecular biology, physiology, social science findings about the (in)effectiveness of education programs, information on the price elasticities of different foods, epidemiological data on obesity in domestic pets paralleling that in humans, etc, etc. Treated in isolation, these may support very different recommendations about what to do to improve health. One reason to describe research as ‘integrative’ is if it tries to articulate these diverse findings to make a case for trialling particular interventions This seems to capture what is intended by some references to ‘integrative research’ in the research initiatives which sponsored the conference. It is also something along these lines that the social scientists at the meeting have been seeking to facilitate.
Gabrielle Bammer’s presentation of ‘integration and implementation sciences’ described a systematic approach to delivering integrative research. She assumed that such research will be problem-oriented, and emphasised that a major issue in translational integration is that knowledge is incomplete, so that part of translational integration is the management of unknowns. The aim of translational integration is not to achieve a more complete vision of nature, and so incompleteness of knowledge is a practical issue to be managed, not an insuperable barrier to integration. Whereas philosopher Sandra Mitchell’s presentation argued for the necessary incompleteness of any single scientific representation of the world, and a consequent need to revise our ideal of scientific enquiry, Bammer’s suggestion that the management of unknowns is central to integrative research would remain valid even on the traditional view that the aim of science is to produce a complete and consistent model of the natural world.
Bammer discussed two classes of tools for delivering integrative research: dialogic methods and modelling techniques. Dialogic methods were exemplified in a presentation by Michael O’Rourke and Stephen Crowley. These researchers have drawn on ideas from the philosophy of science to design facilitated conversations between members of research teams which draw out underlying presuppositions about the aims and standards of science which team members bring from their home disciplines. Bringing these into the open pre-empts misunderstandings and allows the management of disagreement.
The use of models in translational integration ranges from exploring potential connections between different fields, as exemplified in the demonstration of systems diagrams by Robert Dyball, through the detailed causal models of complex systems seen in presentations by David James and John Crawford, to the deliberately abstractive mathematical models presented by Olaf Wolkenhauer. Much recent work in philosophy of science has focused on modelling as scientific practice, and models as scientific products. Whilst both these themes were well-represented in these presentations, another perspective on models present at the conference was their role as a tool for achieving translational integration. The construction of a model to serve as the basis for action can be the activity through which diverse data, methods, results, and existing models from the contributing disciplines, are connected up and rendered commensurable.
What agendas for future research emerged from the meeting? The social scientists involved in research on integration all emphasised that it is early days in the process of developing a systematic approach to delivering integrative research. Those who work with research teams to facilitate integration are simultaneously engaged in research into the effectiveness of these interventions. However, given the ubiquity of interdisciplinary team science in today’s biology and biomedicine, the idea of learning from theory and experience, and embodying those lessons in a more systematic approach to integration is surely worth pursuing.