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Case Study: Science meets the Humanities

Student-led project

Julie Hipperson, Imperial College London

January – December 2013

Is it possible to think about the connections between the sciences and humanities in a way which goes beyond science communication or the History of Science, and which doesn’t get distracted by discussions about ‘The Two Cultures’? The HumSci workshop, a collaboration between Imperial College London and UCL, aimed to promote genuine reciprocity between the sciences and the humanities by bringing together PhD students and Early Career Researchers from both disciplines.

Content of Skills Development programme

The HumSci workshop was held on 28th and 29th May. The first day was led by expert panels of historians and physicists, talking through the similarities and differences in the disciplines, and helping students to critically reflect on their own practices. Issues discussed included method, creativity and uncertainty in research, as well as publishing and communication. This was followed by a public lecture on ‘Complementary science: using history and philosophy to improve science’.

The second day began with a visit to the Alan Turing exhibition at the Science Museum and a discussion with the curator on the challenges of presenting scientific ideas in a cultural context. The day concluded with a group discussion on how the humanities and sciences can work together in the future to create fresh research agendas.

Reflections & Challenges

HumSci was a fantastic experience, but it took considerable time to organise: persuading speakers to contribute (there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings!); organising rooms and catering; advertising and dealing with the budget. My advice: start as early as possible, and be flexible.

The biggest challenge for me was how much of an intellectual and, rather to my surprise, emotional investment HumSci was: if you’re working on an idea which is close to your heart it’s difficult to not take it personally if people don’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to do. It took time to persuade people that the event wasn’t about the history of science or science communication, but about getting two disciplines to talk to one another. It could so easily have been done with two entirely different disciplines, which don’t have these natural intersections, and perhaps in the future it will.

I chose a workshop format to allow the discussion to evolve naturally rather than trying to control the agenda. I know some found this challenging, but both the speakers and the participants responded exceptionally well and seemed invested in making the workshop work.

My biggest regret was that more science researchers weren’t able to participate: they made up just under half the participants until a number had to drop out shortly before the workshop. Whilst this was frustrating, those who did attend were fantastic and it was the points of disjuncture and disagreement which really made the workshop.

The workshop created a forum in which researchers spoke to others from a different discipline, often for the first time, about how they go about their research, and the intellectual and practical considerations which underpin it. One outcome could be interdisciplinary collaborations in which humanities and sciences are equal partners, right from the beginning, in framing the research question and methods. Yet I am persuaded by the workshop discussions that simply seeking out someone who disrupts the normal way you think can be equally productive.

Further details are available at the Word Press website.