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Rachel Ankeny Transcript - S2 E1

[00:00:00] Samara Greenwood: Welcome back to season two of The HPS Podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science in an accessible way.

I am Samara Greenwood and today I am talking with Rachel Ankeny, who is professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Adelaide, but whose wide ranging expertise cuts across HPS, bioethics and science policy, as well as food studies.

Rachel is also editor in chief of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science and is current president of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology. It is an honour to have her discuss with me today the topic of scientific change and research repertoires.

Hello, Rachel, thank you and welcome to the podcast.

[00:00:52] Rachel Ankeny: Thanks for the invitation.

[00:00:54] Samara Greenwood: Firstly, I'd like to know how you came to history and philosophy of science?

[00:00:57] Rachel Ankeny: Originally, I wanted to be probably a physician, and then I got interested in genetics. And from there, I did a really odd undergraduate degree, which was really interdisciplinary liberal arts. And we had to do absolutely everything using primary texts. Through that, I realized I was very interested in everything from philosophy to science and math and so on. When I went to look for graduate school, I thought I might be doing the sciences themselves. But upon thinking about it, realized I really wanted to do the history and the philosophy of those sciences.

At the time I was working for a great books publication run by Encyclopedia Britannica. And I luckily had a number of contributors that I'd worked really closely with, who I thought might be able to give me advice. And so, I started going through my Rolodex, which really dates me, but there you go, and asked a wide range of people. I can remember it was Evelyn Fox Keller, the feminist philosopher of science at MIT at that time, and also Steven Tillman, who was at Chicago, and then several other people who did various historical things. And they all said, oh, you're describing this field, it's called history and philosophy of science.

Then I knew what to start looking for. And so, I started looking for graduate programs in history and philosophy of science.

[00:02:11] Samara Greenwood: Wonderful to have those connections so early in your career.

[00:02:14] Rachel Ankeny: It was very strange. I think otherwise I probably would have picked a program that was really inappropriate because I just didn't know even what to call it, right?

[00:02:23] Samara Greenwood: In 2015, Rachel Ankeny and Sabina Leonelli developed the concept of research repertoires as a way to better understand the composition of research communities. In particular, Rachel and Sabina have introduced the notion of research repertoires to highlight how important the practice of science is to better understand how scientific knowledge making works and changes over time.

The repertoire of a scientific community incorporates all manner of different components, including, say, the typical skills, methods, materials, technologies that community members use, the institutional structures they practice in, the geographical locations they are dispersed across, the funding structures they are part of, the typical training they receive, the common language they share, the general assumptions that are taken for granted in that community, the organizations they subscribe to, and the places they typically publish.

For example, we can see how the research repertoire that Einstein was working within in early 20th century Germany, in terms of all these different components of a community, is quite different to the repertoire of a contemporary theoretical physicist.

Samara Greenwood: Now, your topic for today is scientific repertoires, a concept that you've developed with Sabina Leonelli. Could you first describe for us what you mean by the term repertoires?

[00:03:41] Rachel Ankeny: We've developed this notion of a research repertoire, drawing on the notion of repertoires more generally in arts and performance. If you think about it in something like jazz, or even theatre, performers talk about having this repertoire which to a certain extent means that they have not just the knowledge of the script or the music itself, not just the ability to play it, but in some sense also the ability to work with it and perform it and under diverse circumstances, right?

We were interested in this because we wanted to explore this notion of the performativity connected to the doing of science.

And so, when we use the word repertoire, we're interested in things like behaviours, skills, and abilities, but also instruments, materials, institutions, procedures, and so on. And this way in which these pieces fit together can change over time, but it becomes recognizable. We use this as a framework then to describe particular configurations of these elements in a certain field over time.

There's a nice sociological account of repertoires in jazz. And the quote that I really like is - Faulkner and Becker, who are social scientists, say that it's important not only to know it, namely the items in the repertoire, the songs, but also to know what to do with it, that is, to enact it. It's this notion of enacting and using it as a framework for analysis of practice in science.

Pretty clearly the repertoires approach comes solidly out of the philosophy of science and practice approach that I've been active - and so as Sabina and many others - in advocating for over the last 15 or 20 years.

[00:05:23] Samara Greenwood: The notion of research repertoires also helps us to analyse scientific change. Now the most famous theory of scientific change was put forward by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one of the most cited academic books of all time.

In his account, Thomas Kuhn proposes that science undergoes long periods of stable growth, which he calls ‘normal science’. During periods of normal science, a scientific discipline works within a stable, prevailing framework, which he termed a ‘paradigm’. Under certain conditions, normal science and the paradigm are disrupted, going through a period of crisis and reform, which Thomas Kuhn termed ‘revolutionary science’.

This crisis period may then instigate what he called a ‘paradigm shift’ in which the discipline reorientates itself around a revised framework or paradigm, significantly different from its previous incarnation.

However, in contrast to Kuhn's revolutionary paradigm shifts, which tend to give the impression of requiring wholesale change across a discipline, Ankeny and Leonelli's notion of research repertoires facilitates the study of smaller scale changes across a range of components within a scientific community.

Repertoires also offers the advantage of better understanding how various components interact within the disciplinary field and perhaps even exploring how to instigate positive change within a particular group or community.

Samara Greenwood: I understand you developed the term partly as an improvement on Thomas Kuhn's infamous concept of scientific paradigms. I'm interested first, what led you to develop an alternative concept, and what does repertoire offer that paradigm does not? I'm guessing practice is in there quite a bit. Are there other things as well?

[00:07:10] Rachel Ankeny: Yeah, so practice is obviously key to it, in the sense that Kuhnian paradigms tend to be heavily framed around theoretical developments, and therefore in order to study research practice it’s a little trickier to map it on to what Kuhn argued for.

If you go to map much of science onto what Kuhn argued for, it's going to fall into what he called normal science, right? But normal science largely was constructed, in his account, as an opposition or conjunction with this notion of paradigms [and paradigm shifts]. Normal science, in some sense, is what goes on most of the time when you're not having a revolution.

But if we remember Kuhn, revolutions were going to be really rare kinds of occasions. In addition, then, we wanted to try to come up with an account that allowed us to account for this day to day kind of practices in science that didn't require these huge disruptive kinds of things, but perhaps more micro changes or tweaking of the way which people do it.

And then finally, we also wanted to take account of a much wider range of phenomena that we think relate to how science is done and that we don't think are external to its epistemology. This includes all that stuff that I mentioned earlier about the material, the technological, the institutional, even the administrative kinds of features that undergird any particular performance of science.

This allows us to see these more minor shifts, which might be occurring for a whole range of different reasons. It's not excluding theory. Theory is part of the picture, but it's just one part of the picture. It's necessary to look at this wider kind of sphere in order to fully understand the repertoire in any particular case.

[00:08:50] Samara Greenwood: It does certainly provide a richer set of ideas associated with it, in my mind, at least. Would funding also come into that, as part of repertoires?

[00:08:59] Rachel Ankeny: Definitely. So, we've looked at a couple different cases in some detail where funding made a difference to the way in which things were conceptualized.

The model organism repertoire, which we've both written about extensively, where the Human Genome Project provided a huge amount of funding. That really shored it up and at least circumscribed the way in which research was done in that period. Other examples are, we've written a bit on coral reef science and ways in which they changed their repertoire away from the way in which it was previously defined to more focus on infection, which allowed them to harness the rhetoric and some of the strategies for funding that came out of infectious disease research.

I think too often funding is seen as kind of a black hole and external to science, but the reality, and any scientist would admit this when you stop to talk to them, it often really does structure the way in which people make arguments. They may end up doing different things within a particular funding program, but funding programs can also help guide them to certain problems or certain systems or ways of understanding.

So, you can't just discount funding as external. I think too often we tend to discount, in the philosophy of science and even history of science, those things we find it hard to study. And because we can't get a lot of information around funding - in terms of getting all the reviews or whatever else - we set it aside and black box it. But we're trying to at least acknowledge where those things exist.

[00:10:26] Samara Greenwood: What about who's doing the science? So, the demographics of a particular discipline, is that encapsulated in this idea of repertoires?

[00:10:34] Rachel Ankeny: Definitely. Yes. I think another thing that probably brought us to this account was working on highly dispersed communities, right? And communities in particular that are dispersed globally. And looking at ways that those communities have either been built or maintained over time and then changed in terms of their demographics and their geography and their communication mechanisms over time.

The research communities are a really fundamental part of often what makes a repertoire. In other words, communities often define themselves by their repertoire. I think we do see that over time, communities come to really be stabilized around the set of shared components or factors.

That being said, as people change over time, and particularly generationally, we see shifts of what they bring in in terms of technologies. We also see shifts in terms of openness to changing up certain assumptions. We might see different institutional configurations. For example, over time, we've seen that molecular biology has really widened into a whole range of interconnected practices that aren't the sort maybe envisioned in the 60s and 70s, because they're bringing in all sorts of other disciplinary backgrounds and techniques.

My examples come primarily from biology, because that's mostly what I study, biology and medicine. But I think similar things can be seen as you experience generational change, particularly in periods when that is simultaneous with technological change, funding structures, and so on.

[00:12:05] Samara Greenwood: Can you imagine when repertoires meet? Say you've got two disciplines coming together for a shared goal, is that something that becomes part of it?

[00:12:13] Rachel Ankeny: That is really of interest to us. And in particular, when two repertoires come into contact and perhaps hybridize, we often see a new subfield or a new approach. Also, you can use this to suss out negative examples where the repertoire just didn't take, because it didn't align with other components of the particular way in which a community worked.

For example, research with rodents came into this model organism paradigm for a while through the Human Genome Project. But because rodents are so tied into other ways of being used, notably commercialized pharmaceutical research, they didn't really stay with other organisms that were being fashioned more for basic research.

And so, we do see these points at which things come in contact and where people can move across into other areas where you have different things in tandem.

[00:13:04] Samara Greenwood: Could you provide maybe some concrete examples of how the concept of repertoires has been used, either in your own work, some more examples there, or in other people's work?

[00:13:13] Rachel Ankeny: We've looked at a couple different things in detail, but I can give just some general examples that people might be aware of.

One that we've talked about is, if you think about research with large instrumentation like super colliders, you could say, well, people gather around a super collider in physics. Although that is part of the picture, it also goes along with a whole set of scientific practices, experimental assumptions, and the technologies themselves. Also, communication and the way in which this technology is sold to others in their community, but well beyond to governments and funders and so on. When we look at what scientists do with super colliders, we see this really clear alignment between research practices and funding and also institutional requirements where you're able to use your precious time on it to actually collaborate and produce something, right?

Whereas some of the European groups have done this quite successfully, in many ways in the U. S. that's been much less successful because there hasn't been this clear alignment between the different components.

People have kind of picked up this approach, and the examples are pretty wide ranging. Things like synthetic biology, I've seen a piece on soil ecology and change over time, forensic science, the human brain project, which people might know is a fairly recent initiative to bring together different disciplines, cognitive science, and the list sort of goes on.

So far, people have been using it for what I would call big science, or relatively big science and relatively contemporary science. It would be incredibly interesting to me to see if more historic examples work as well. I don't think there's anything particularly modern about this account. But I do think it tends to be more obvious that it'll be useful in places where you do have lots of players and lots of factors that are transparent.

In particular, it seems to work well where you have collectives of scientists, communities working together and trying to understand how they come to do what they do in this broader context with these broader things like policies, funding and so on. There's no reason to think it would be different historically. I think it's just, we have to take more seriously things like the effects of patronage - which is effectively funding - the way in which public opinion, religious opinion, shaped people's views towards science, ways in which a field took a turn or changed over time. And how, what counted as success or a good theory or a good answer or a useful practice might have changed over time.

[00:15:49] Samara Greenwood: In another podcast episode, I've interviewed David Kaiser talking about pedagogy and education, and I can imagine this really plays into the story as well in terms of change or also stability and how you keep the same repertoire perhaps through multiple generations?

[00:16:06] Rachel Ankeny: We see that quite a lot in tertiary teaching particularly, but also high school teaching. The repertoire is very well settled for teaching purposes, and one of the last places you see it leave is in teaching.

I'm laughing because I can think of a good example because I'm supervising a PhD where the student is looking at ways in which genetics are taught in the classroom today. And the way in which certain kinds of approaches in universities don't really fit that portrayal. So, as much as we know genetics is not the simple version that a lot of us learn in high school, it's still the case that it's used as the kind of underlying paradigm or repertoire, the most simplistic kind of Mendelian genetics. And once you start to try and teach things like the effect of the microbiome or epigenetics or developmental theory, it becomes more complicated. You don't see it as well represented in the tertiary curriculum, even today, maybe in a specialized class, but not in the intro class. And yet, this is where the action of research is.

So, I think it's a really interesting question, not only what are students learning, but how is this shaping the way that they see a field? And perhaps limiting it too much, because people are teaching in a particular repertoire, if you will, that may also be governed and what the prevalent approaches to them are at a particular point in time.

It's technologically driven to a certain extent. So, you know, you're not going to tend to teach things where you can actually accompany it with an appropriate practicum. All of this goes hand in hand with having repertoires that in some way we're not even conscious of having in the practice of science.

[00:17:40] Samara Greenwood: Yes. And in a previous episode, we talked with Greg Radick and he's…

[00:17:44] Rachel Ankeny: I heard that one.

[00:17:44] Samara Greenwood: You heard that one? Yes. And exactly that about - what if we change the way we teach at that high school level, is that going to have implications? And it does seem to definitely shift that base mindset a scientist maybe brings to their work if they are taught in a different way.

[00:18:00] Rachel Ankeny: Yes. And I think a really important point is often students kind of get lost because they think everything's already understood and known. And it's challenging to try to teach about where the gaps are, where the uncertainties are, the assumptions are, but that's where the action is, right? We do well to point to those because that's going to get students excited about potentially going on and doing research. If it all is presented as fait accompli, no wonder no one wants to do it.

[00:18:27] Samara Greenwood: Yes. And I was thinking too, in all of these things that you've been talking about with the repertoire concept, is that it really does set the tone for a much more complex and interrelated imagining of science, right?

I can imagine that it's not only good for analysis of particular projects, but also just more accurately capturing perhaps what's going on. Have you found that in your work?

[00:18:48] Rachel Ankeny: That's what we try to argue, that we think it actually is getting into more of the detail, and often going in at this level, it raises as many questions as it answers, right?

Because once you start probing at a deeper level of detail beyond, say, the published paper, or beyond what's printed out of a group, you see all the ups and downs of performance. You see the broader context within which it's happening, which just leads to even more questions about things like funding, influences, where people are working institutionally, who they're having conversations with, how that is shaping what they do.

And so, I think it's probably both more accurate, but it's also more realistic in the sense that it's more of a reflection of what people actually do. Whereas a lot of our traditional kinds of ways of doing philosophy of science tend to abstract quite heavily from the doing of science because it's very hard to systematize practice, right?

[00:19:40] Samara Greenwood: And so, what kind of response have you had to the concept of scientific repertoires? Have you found both scientists and HPS scholars have found it useful in their own work?

[00:19:49] Rachel Ankeny: Yeah, as I said, we're seeing quite a lot of uptake from people in HPS, which is really heartening. We occasionally get criticisms from people who want to say, well, at the point at which you're doing this, you're now doing social studies of science.

We think the questions that we're still asking are largely philosophical. They of course do look at social practices, so in that sense, they share some of their target with STS, but it's actually coming up with much richer material, we think, for a philosophical account of scientific practice, right?

We've also sort of gotten some criticisms that it's not as kind of revolutionary as it might hope to be, no pun intended with ‘revolutionary’. And in particular, that it actually is more Kuhnian than it gives itself credit for. The issue with that, of course, whenever you use Kuhn as a spinning off point, is there's probably, you know, as many interpretations of Kuhn as there are Kuhn scholars, effectively.

We're seeing it as a jumping off point, we aren't seeing it as a direct rejection of Kuhn as such. It's an additional kind of component that we need to think about.

I think critical STS thinks somehow, this isn't STS enough and philosophy of science that isn't focused on practice thinks that it's too STS. Maybe the punchline to that is we're making everyone unhappy and that's a good thing.

[00:21:08] Samara Greenwood: That is a good response.

Rachel and Sabina have also suggested that for a scientific community to be robust and productive, the components of a research repertoire need to be well aligned and that barriers to good research occur when the components are misaligned.

Similarly, if a community wishes to consciously shift in a certain direction, but is feeling stymied, a better understanding of their current repertoire, and what components may need to be brought into better alignment, may be helpful in enabling that change.

And so why do you think the concept of scientific repertoires might be of interest to a broader audience beyond scientists and HPS folk?

[00:21:47] Rachel Ankeny: I think for people interested in the practice of science, it rings more true with the details.

I used it recently for an audience of a mixture of scientists and NGOs and others to describe progress in this field - they want to think of it as a field - around novel approaches to animal experimentation. In other words, not using animals, using things like stem cells and cell cultures and computer simulations and so on.

And for them, lots of talk about hoping there's going to be a paradigm shift to these NAMs as they call them - ‘New Approach Methodologies’ - doesn't really get them very far, because what is the paradigm that's shifting? The sort of evidence that people want from experimentation is going to be roughly similar. The norms are going to be similar, although the technologies may be different. It's not novel in that sense.

But for them, something like repertoires makes more sense because maybe the barriers to using NAMs are things like; needing to change technologies, needing to change institutional relationships, changing who you're collaborating with, away from this sort of person to a biostatistician, or whatever it is that you need. None of those things are paradigm shifts, right? In their own fields, those things are ticking along like usual, it's the ‘putting them together’ into this new way of doing experimentation for translation or toxicology or whatever field you're working in - that's the new. And that sounds like a repertoire.

So, I think this framework is more compelling and also allows people to think systematically through the different features of their science that either they are changing, or they need to change.

In that particular domain, for example, training would have to change quite dramatically. Students in biomedical sciences aimed at translation to humans aren't typically given the skills to do computer simulation, or even interpret that. They probably aren't that accustomed to doing research with stem cell constructs. So, I think that kind of account is appealing.

It's particularly appealing in these contemporary domains where you have very dispersed communities, even global science going on, possibly at the intersection of different fields. That's where you really see that picking apart these components gives you a lot of traction around ways in which people are changing how they do the science and, in turn, how this might change the underlying epistemology, the theories, the outcomes, and even the research questions.

[00:24:11] Samara Greenwood: As you were talking about that previous example, where paradigms didn't really do it, ‘paradigm’ does have a flat kind of a sense. Whereas ‘repertoire’ does immediately bring up thinking about multiple components and how they fit together - and even change over time is a natural thing you think of with repertoires, right?

[00:24:30] Rachel Ankeny: Yes, and that these two things kind of fit together quite nicely. I guess the other thing I like about repertoires, it does make reference not just to people doing things but doing things with other things.

With music, it usually involves an instrument, even if that's the human voice. So, it's people in concert with instruments, if you will, that have changed over time, methods that have changed over time, and concepts all behaving together. Along with the influences that are really central of the way in which those have been shaped by funding, by social structures, by educational structures, by community structures, communication structures, and so on.
I think it's quite a nice term. No one's convinced me it doesn't work because of this strong sense of performativity in particular.

[00:25:18] Samara Greenwood: Finally, I wanted to ask where you'd like to see repertoires taken in the future. You've mentioned a couple of things, but is there anything else that you feel where there's untapped potential in the concept?

[00:25:27] Rachel Ankeny: I do think it would be really interesting to see people use it in what we might call STS, particularly with deeply embedded ethnographic work, where people are actually in a lab or in a field and seeing what people are doing. In some sense, I think repertoires are easier to use as a framework where you're able to look longitudinally over long periods of time because I think we can only start to see perhaps these hiccups or these change points when you are looking longitudinally. I'm a little curious if you can see it at a finer grain, so that would be the ethnographic request.

I think the repertoire's concept could use a lot more attention to the actors in the picture who are not scientists. So, these would include funders, politicians, but also technicians, science administrators, and so on, who often do shape the way it is done in various ways.

I'd like to try to have more of an account of what things look like when they are well aligned as well. Because I think that's a pretty essential part of this claim around what makes a solid repertoire or a stable repertoire and also what then helps the repertoire to undergird a community. Communities tend to work better where things are well aligned. We've shown that in some examples, we've talked about it, but trying to come up with some more generic markers of alignment, I think, is an interesting question.

We haven't talked about this, but of course, the way in which scientific publication works. And credit attribution works is also a big part of a repertoire. For example, as we see these pushes towards perhaps changing that, we could see interesting shifts. There's been proposals lately to say, we shouldn't have authorship as such anymore. We should have, in effect, what they have when they produce a movie, where you have all those credits at the end. We should have the inspiration, the back office, the best boy, all the things that we have in the credits at a movie should be reinterpreted for authorship in a sense, but also responsibility for scientific publications. So it's not just that some people get buried in the acknowledgments, or worse, don't even get mentioned.

I think it's an interesting idea. It would look very different. But in some way, that's what ‘repertoires’ is trying to force philosophers to look at. It's that whole ecosystem that encompasses the doing of science.

[00:27:49] Samara Greenwood: That's fabulous. Thank you so much, Rachel, for being on the podcast. It has been wonderful to have you.

[00:27:55] Rachel Ankeny: No worries. It's been great. Thanks for the conversation.

[00:27:58] Samara Greenwood: Thank you for listening. We hope you're enjoying season two of The HPS podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science for a general audience.

To learn more about the podcast, you can check out our website at There you can also find links to our blog, Bluesky, Twitter, Facebook, and Insta accounts, as well as shownotes and transcripts for all our episodes.

I'm Samara Greenwood and my co producer is Indigo Keel. Together we would like to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne for their ongoing support of the podcast. We look forward to having you back again next time.


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