Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What is Integrated Science?

What is Integrated Science?

Background: Science Education in India has suffered from an inherited separation of the study of ‘natural worlds’ (material and biotic) and the ‘human worlds’. As a result natural sciences (focused on the study of natural worlds) and humanities and social sciences (focused on the study of human worlds) have developed in India as two insulated spaces, each with its exclusive and narrow focus. However our experiences of the ‘real world’ show us repeatedly that the real world is never split into two restricted worlds – the natural and the human; these two worlds are far from separate; they are interconnected, inter-related and often flows into each other; such that natural science studies are not just studies of natural phenomena; they have to them large elements of the human world. Hence, at the level of knowledge production what we need is an integrated approach – integrating objects of enquiry and methodologies emanating from the hitherto separate study of both worlds.

Broad Objective: Given the separation and the divide, the Integrated Science Education initiative of the Higher Education Cell feels that we need an integrated approach connecting not just natural and social sciences but also:-

(i) extant disciplines within the natural/social sciences (leading to inter-disciplinarity within natural/social sciences and new knowledge production through a surmounting of disciplinary rigidities; critical intra-disciplinarity in terms of a reflection on the history and method of one’s own discipline would be the ground for such inter-disciplinarity)

(ii) material, biotic and human worlds

(iii) experiences and knowledges of the ‘lay’ and the expert (the farmer and agricultural scientist for example)

(iv) service delivery and the recipient (patient and doctor for example)

(v) technology and the user of technology

(vi) interests of stakeholders (like the public at large and the scientific community)

History of Integration Efforts in India: It is not that in India, we have not had anxieties about this separation. Our best attempts at attending to this separation – the setting up of Humanities and Social Science (HSS) departments, in a largely techno-scientific atmosphere in the IITs – have not solved the problem of the inherited separation. Instead, science students have found HSS courses to be an unnecessary and alien addition to their already demanding science-technology courses. In this model of integration HSS departments are in effect never integrated within the science-technology institution. Here social science and humanities questions and methods are seen not as offering anything fundamental to science but merely imparting some version of value-based education to science students.

The other model of integration is one where primarily three social science subjects, namely philosophy, sociology and history emerge as gatekeepers or final arbiters of what science is doing, through philosophy of science, sociology of scientific knowledge and history of science. Herein social science subjects emerge as critiques of science, of scientific knowledge production and of laboratory life. Social sciences in this case seem to be offering judgments on the scientificity of science.

Whereas in the first model, social sciences and humanities departments come across as Innocuous Insiders, in the second model, social sciences emerge as stringent measures of the scientificity of science and the scientific method; they are, as if, Critical Outsiders.

The New Roadmap for Integration: Marking its distance from the above two models of integration, the Integrated Science Education initiative of the Higher Education Cell, would like to suggest working towards a third model. In this model, we are proposing a different understanding of integration, an understanding that transcends disciplinary divides and that focuses on those interstices where natural and human worlds somewhat evidently meet (health is an obvious example). We want to create a different trajectory of integration by rethinking the very need for social science questions in a science institution and come up with viable arguments for why this would enhance the quality of education offered and increase both research and employability options for students. Further, in the 21st century with the narrowing of the gap between biotic and technological worlds, the need to further develop an integrated approach (integrating natural effects and human intentional effects; integrating natural science and HSS methodologies) to study phenomena that could be called quasi-natural cannot but be emphasized. We need new sciences where such quasi-natural phenomena would emerge as objects of research and teaching.

To aid the emergence of such new objects of enquiry the Integrated Science Education initiative of the Higher Education Cell, plans to pilot Integrated Themes of research and teaching. Integrated Themes require an approach that can be taken up collectively-collaboratively. Integrated themes will have to be innovatively imagined, their relevance assessed, and research questions framed. Research in integrated themes require a pool of researchers drawn in from the natural and the social sciences, each interested in at least two things: (i) a critical re-visioning of his/her own disciplinary methodology and in learning from the methodology of other disciplines (be they natural sciences or social sciences) (ii) an openness to work as a member of a researchers’ collective so as to render a particular thematic specific knowable and teachable. It is premised on the perception that integrated ways would need to be found that are neither exclusively natural science ways nor social science ways.

While these were the problems of the field, there are a few promises. One is that science itself is moving away from mid-nineteenth century linear determinist models to ‘complexity theory’. Heterarchy (multiple orders) is replacing pyramidal hierarchical orders of enquiry. The image of a machine-like universe is being replaced by a holographic interactive network image of processes marked at a deeper level by ‘idiosyncratic microstates’; reductionism and objectivity is giving way to context and perspective. New methodologies, new objects of enquiry and new themes of research are emerging consequently.

In our science teaching institutions, one thus needs to face up to the challenge of doing science anew, doing it in its connection with the other disciplines, doing it more holistically, while remaining at the same time attentive to idiosyncratic particularities and details at the micro level. In the 21st century the study of ‘complex adaptative systems’ has become the ultimate interdisciplinary science, focusing its modelling activities on how microstate events—whether particles, molecules, genes, neurons, human agents self-organize into emergent aggregate structures. We would like to add to this themes that are relevant to contemporary global concerns (like bio-nano-information technologies, climate change, biodiversity, cognition, cybersubjectivity, energy), national developmental concerns (like health, nutrition) and concerns of users of science-technology (like user rights, experimental ethics).

Science Education in India must live up to the challenges of the present; and to assist in institutional efforts at living up to these challenges the Integrated Science Education initiative is planning to collectively (bringing together natural science and social science scholars) and collaboratively develop integrated themes in science teaching institutions.


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