“Put the Philosophy Back into the Doctorate of Philosophy”

Two biology professors at Johns Hopkins University are worried that typical doctoral programs in the sciences “are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs,” and have crafted a new graduate science program that aims to “put the philosophy back into the doctorate of philosophy: that is, the ‘Ph’ back into the PhD.”

Professor Gundula Bosch, writing in Nature, describes gaps in student training identified by both faculty and students:

Recurring themes included the inability to apply theoretical knowledge in statistical tests in the laboratory, frequent mistakes in choosing an appropriate set of experimental controls, and significant difficulty in explaining work to non-experts.

She and her colleague, Arturo Casadevall, then developed their program:

We call our programme R3, which means that our students learn to apply rigour to their design and conduct of experiments; view their work through the lens of social responsibility; and to think critically, communicate better, and thus improve reproducibility. Although we are aware of many innovative individual courses developed along these lines, we are striving for more-comprehensive reform.

Our offerings are different from others at the graduate level. We have critical-thinking assignments in which students analyse errors in reasoning in a New York Times opinion piece about ‘big sugar’, and the ethical implications of the arguments made in a New Yorker piece by surgeon Atul Gawande entitled ‘The Mistrust of Science’. Our courses on rigorous research, scientific integrity, logic, and mathematical and programming skills are integrated into students’ laboratory and fieldwork. Those studying the influenza virus, for example, work with real-life patient data sets and wrestle with the challenges of applied statistics…

So far, we have built 5 new courses from scratch and have enrolled 85 students from nearly a dozen departments and divisions. The courses cover the anatomy of errors and misconduct in scientific practice and teach students how to dissect the scientific literature. An interdisciplinary discussion series encourages broad and critical thinking about science. Our students learn to consider societal consequences of research advances, such as the ability to genetically alter sperm and eggs.

Discussions about the bigger-picture problems of the scientific enterprise get students to reflect on the limits of science, and where science’s ability to do something competes with what scientists should do from a moral point of view. In addition, we have seminars and workshops on professional skills, particularly leadership skills through effective communication, teaching and mentoring.

It isn’t unusual for philosophy departments to have a role in interdisciplinary educational programs at the undergraduate level (e.g., Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). Though is not clear whether JHU’s philosophy department is involved with it, the R3 initiative is an interesting example of how philosophy could have a role to play in graduate interdisciplinary programs.

Some such programs involving philosophy exist (e.g., Pitt’s HPS) but it would be helpful to learn more about the variety of programs on offer. If you know of any, or are involved in one, please share the relevant information.

Jiyong Lee, “Geometric Cell Membrane Segmentation”

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