Training reflexive researchers

by Livio Riboli-Sasco & Claire Ribrault – Atelier des Jours A Venir

Atelier des Jours à Venir implemented a training for PhD students in France. Three woman have been trained to adopt a reflexive approach on their research practice. We guided them to find the words to present with full transparency their research, which includes a description of historical developments of their discipline, the implicit values of their community, the hierarchical organization of their labs, potential gender biases, funding schemes and conflicts of interest.

A training to adopt a critical and reflexive approach on one’s research practice has been proposed to various graduate schools in Paris. Free of charge and allowing to validate mandatory training hours, this training attracted a dozen of PhD students. Out of these, only 3 woman actually took part. This high drop-out rate prior to the first meeting is typical of PhD trainings which are not mandatory, for which there is no consequence in dropping-out and which require an important contribution. Not only had the attendees to seat for a 3 day course, they have then to take part four times in activities in schools spread around Paris and its suburbs. The lack of recognition of time-intensive science & society activities for the early stages of a career in research contributes to the observed drop-out. PhD prefer to enrol in classes which are less demanding so that they can focus on the primary productions of their research which can be translated into publications.

The training consisted in few brief lectures and sessions of individual based work, mentored by the teachers. Our main goal was to provide the trainees with the capacity to present their research in full transparency.

At the end of the training they were able to depict their disciplinary community. Who are the people working there? What is their educational background? What is the actual gender bias? Are there any other social biases? How do people relate to each other, how informal are the interactions? We helped them to phrase the sources of reliability in the specific research methods employed. Trusting biological research does not rely on the implementation of the same intellectual and practical processes than the ones needed to trust climate science, mathematics or philosophy. The attendees exercised themselves in explaining to a general audience the reliability that may come from replicability (biology), consensus (climate science) or inner coherence (maths), etc…

We ask them to state their funding sources, their potential conflicts of interest and current issues in their disciplines that may be due to a lack of deontology among their peers. We also guided them to relate their research practice to recent deontological norms edited by the European Science Fondation and their French versions.

To achieve these goals, we provided basic knowledge on key debates on values and science, for example reading Merton’s famous 1942 publication. We also presented the work of feminist epistemologists such as Dona Haraway and Sandra Harding. In line with the theory of standpoint, the trainees and the trainers wrote and shared a detailed declaration stating how their personal life (parents, culture, education, social & economical status, gender) affects their relationship to science and research.

Eventually we investigated the social, cultural and economical characteristics of the pupils they would later have to engage with. Together with the artists involved in developing the Perseias, they framed the outline of participatory dialogues with pupils.

To engage an open dialogue in French schools, Perform can now rely on the skills of highly reflexive early career researchers. This might be a challenging if, at the same time, we aim at standardising the schemes for participatory workshops in schools. A constrained dialogue is not in line with the intellectual freedom that responsible, respectful and reflexive scientists will bring into the schools.