European Research Council Consolidator Award 101001145
The Alan Turing Institute
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Australian Research Council
British Pharmacological Society
The Leverhulme Trust
Professor Sabina Leonelli
Professor of Philosophy and History of Science
Byrne House FF12
Note on Open Access: my publications are freely accessible from Data Studies and Open Science Studies, the ORE site of the University of Exeter, PhilSci Archive and (when not outrageously expensive) in Gold Open Access format thanks to the generous support of ERC, ESRC, EPSRC, ARC and the University of Exeter. Orcid ID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7815-6609
I serve as the Director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis); theme lead for the "Data Governance, Openness and Ethics" strand of the Exeter Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (IDSAI); and Turing Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute in London. I am also Editor-in-Chief of the international journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, together with Professor Giovanni Boniolo; Associate Editor for the Harvard Data Science Review; and Subject Editor for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. I serve in the Scientific Advisory Board for the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research and hold a Honorary Professorship at the School of History of the University of Adelaide and a Research Fellowship with the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dorhn in Naples. I have been elected Fellow of the Academie Internationale de Philosophie de la Science, the Academia Europaea, and the Royal Society of Biology, and member of AcademiaNet.
My research spans the fields of history and philosophy of biology, science and technology studies and general philosophy of science, and currently focuses on four interrelated strands:  the philosophy, history and social studies of data-intensive science and empirical inquiry, especially the impact of Big and Open Data on research and wider society, responsible data management, data infrastructures and the construction of semantics to enable data linkage for automated mining in the plant sciences and biomedicine;  the philosophy of Open Science, and the scientific and social implications of implementing Open Science policies and procedures;  the philosophy and history of organisms as research models, with a focus on experimental organisms;  the history and epistemology of the plant sciences, especially the global circulation of plant data, its relation to biological materials and agricultural development strategies, and its significance for understanding 21st century biological research beyond the lab.
Current funded projects:
- 2021-2026: PI of European Research Council Consolidator Grant "A Philosophy of Open Science for Diverse Research Environments" (PHIL_OS) Research Fellows: Rose Trappes and Paola Castaño.
- 2024: Kluge Chair in Technology and Society, John W. Kluge Center in the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Project: "Openness, Democracy and the Evolution of Technologies of Evidence"
- 2019-2024: Co-I on EPSRC Doctoral Training Centre on Environmental Intelligence, led by Gavin Shaddik
From September 2021 to June 2022, I was based in Berlin as a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, working on "Excellence and Diversity in Global Scientific Practice". I was recently the PI of the Turing Project "From Field Data to Global Indicators: Towards a Framework for Intelligent Plant Data Linkage" (2019-2022) and the European Research Council Starting Grant "The Epistemology of Data-Intensive Science" [DATA_SCIENCE] (2014-2019). I was also a Co-I on the ARC Discovery Grant Organisms and Us: How Living Things Help Us to Understand Our World, led by Rachel Ankeny (2016-2020); the ESRC Research Grant Social Sensing of Health and Wellbeing Impact from Pollen and Pollution, led by Hywel Williams (2017-2018); the Leverhulme Trust Grant Beyond the Digital Divide, led by Brian Rappert (2015-2017); the ESRC Research Grant Understanding the Use of Digital Forensics in Policing in England and Wales, led by Dana Wilson-Kovacs (2018-2021); and the British Pharmacological Society project The Future Landscape of in vivo Skills, led by Gail Davies (2016-2017).
Books: The textbook Data and Society: A Critical Introduction (with Anne Beaulieu) was published by SAGE in 2021. The edited volumes Towards Responsible Plant Data Linkage (with Hugh Williamson, 2022) and Data Journeys in the Sciences (with Niccolo Tempini, 2020) and my Elements books Philosophy of Open Science (2023) and Model Organisms (with Rachel Ankeny, 2020) are now downloadable in Open Access format from Springer and Cambridge University Press. The monograph Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study, published in 2016 by Chicago University Press, won the Lakatos Award in 2018 and the Patrick Suppes Prize for Philosophy of Science in 2022. Links to all reviews are here. I am currently working on a monograph on empiricism in the 21st century, which is a much-expanded English version of my 2018 book La Ricerca Scientifica nell'Era dei Big Data ("Scientific Research in the Era of Big Data", published in Italian by Meltemi, in French by Mimesis  and in Portuguese by Editora FIOCRUZ ).
Advisory / policy roles: I am interested in the governance and use of large data infrastructures and in the implementation of Open Science, and I am in regular dialogue with national governments, international bodies and scientific societies/institutions on this issue. I am a Plan S Ambassador (2019-2023) and acted as a Thinker in Residence for the 2021-2022 programme on Reproducibility and Replicability in Science by the Flemish Science Academy. I am an evaluator for the Italian National Centre for High-performing Computing, Big Data and Quantum Computing, and I serve as advisor for the FAIR-IMPACT project, the SAIL database, the Royal Society Working Group on the Implications of Disruptive Technologies for Research, among other initiatives.
The University of Exeter organised a highly rated impact case study for REF2021 around my research and policy engagement on Open Science. In 2016-2019 I was a member of the Open Science Policy Platform of the European Commission (co-authoring, among other statements, the 2018 OSPP-REC) and in 2017-2018 I served as a key expert in the Mutual Learning Exercise on Open Science (Policy Support Facility) of the DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission. I am an alumna of the Global Young Academy, where from 2015 to 2017 I led the Open Science working group within the Research Environment thematic area. In March 2018 we launched a groundbreaking report on "Global Access to Open Software: The Forgotten Pillar of Open Science", based on a survey carried out by GYA members in Ghana, Nigeria and Bangladesh. I authored many other policy reports, available here.
Service to the history and philosohy of science: I am President-Elect of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), due to serve as President in 2025-2027 and Past-President in 2027-2029. i have been Vice President (2019-2023), senior co-Chair of the EPSA Women's Caucus (2015-2019) and as member of the steering committee (2013-2017 of the European Philosophy of Science Association. I also served as chair of the nomination committee of the Philosophy of Science Association (2019-2021). I am an executive board member of the PhilSci-Archive (the Open Access archive for the philosophy of science) and the executive committees of the UK Network for the Integrated History and Philosophy of Science, the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice (whose 2011 meeting I hosted in Exeter) and the European Advanced School for the Philosophy of Biology (whose 2018 edition I organised with Thomas Reydon). I am part of the editorial board of the journals Science, Technology & Human Values, Big Data & Society, Social Epistemology, Patterns and Data, and the philosophy newsletter The Reasoner. I have chaired the Grene and Callebaut Prize Committee of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) in 2019-2021 and helped to coordinate the UK network for the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Science in the early 2010s.
Service to the natural sciences: I strongly value collaboration with colleagues in the natural sciences and I am on the advisory board of the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage Database (SAIL), PomBase and the European Arabidopsis Stock Centre, among other scientific projects and institutions. In Exeter, I am on the steering committee of the Wellcome-Trust funded Translational Research Exchange and the Animal Nexus Collaborative project. Between 2009 and 2020 I served as an ex officio member of the steering committee of GARNet, for which I produced a report on data dissemination practices in plant science and organised the conference "From Big Data to Discovery", resulting in the publication of a paper on data management practices in Nature Plants in 2017.
Talks and Visiting Positions: I have been invited to present my work to a variety of audiences across several countries and institutions, including numerous leading universities, the Royal Society, the European Commission, the European Research Council, the Leopoldina, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Science Forum, the Indian Statistical Institute, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the International Data Curation Conference, the Philosophy of Science Association Public Forum and the Field Museum. I have held visiting positions at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Evolution and Cognition (2005), the University of Minnesota (Centre for the Philosophy of Science, 2012), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (project "Sciences of the Archive", 2014; Colloquium visitor, 2019), the Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science in Gent, Belgium (2018) and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2021-22).
Research group links
- Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences
- Department of Sociology and Philosophy
- Science and Technology Studies
I pursue an approach to philosophy of science that is grounded on the empirical study of scientific practices, as informed by historical research, ethnographic methods used in the social and anthropological studies of science and technology, and collaboration with practicing scientists. I have a strong interest in the following topics:
- Open Science and transformations in research systems (see www.opensciencestudies.eu)
- Epistemic injustice and epistemic diversity in global research
- Ethics and Governance of Data and AI
- Data-intensive science; Research data sharing and re-use (see www.datastudies.eu)
- The Regulatory Role and Epistemic Impact of Bioinformatics and Data Semantics systems in Biology and Biomedicine
- History and Epistemic Status of Model Organism Research
- History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Biology and Biomedicine
- The Role of Embodied Knowledge and Skills in Scientific Understanding
- Abstraction and Modelling Processes in Biology
- Science Policy and the Globalisation and Political Economy of Scientific Research
- Distributed Cognition and Division of Scientific Labor
- Unity, Disunity and Integration in Science
- Early American Pragmatism
I taught data ethics and governance to postgraduate students in data science in the College of Engineering and Mathematics (2018-2021), and bioethics to second-year undergraduate students in the College of Biosciences (2009-2013).
Philosophy, history and social studies of data-intensive science, bioinformatics, experimental research on organisms and model systems, translational research and Open Science
Role of digital technologies in shaping scientific research and communication
Impact of automation and artificial intelligence on knowledge production and scientific methods
Projects concerning plant biology, including its relations to agriculture and data science
Global governance, science and democracy
General philosophy of science (especially philosophy of science in practice)
Science and Technology Studies
Pragmatism and empiricism
As first supervisor:
Elis Jones ("The Significance of 'Value' to Coral Reef Scientists")
Arthur Vandervoort ("Using Gender Disaggregation Methods to Support Disaster Relief")
As second supervisor:
Alex Mussgang (University of Edinburgh, philosophy of machine learning)
Margaret Bolton (semantics and conceptual foundations of biodiversity data infrastructures)
Cassandra Bird (ethics of data modelling)
Abhi Navaneethanathan (data fusion in oceanography)
Former PhD students:
Dook Sheperd (University of Adelaide, "The Honeybee as a Model of Cognition", completed 2022)
Miguel Lopez Paleta (UNAM, Mexico; "The Chicken as an Experimental Organism", completed 2020)
Stefano Canali (University of Hannover, "Causality and Epistemology of Data in Exposomics Research", completed 2019)
Necmiye Ackali (experimental philosophy, completed 2021)
Gregor Halfmann ("Data processing in ocean science", completed 2018)
Nicholas Binney ('History and philosophy of diagnosis: the case of heart failure', completed 2017).
James Lowe ('Normal development, preformation and epigenesis in early 20th century experimental biology', completed 2015).
Tarquin Holmes ('Wildtype in the history of biology', completed 2016)
Jo Donaghy ("Researchers' Assumptions and Mathematical Models: A Philosophical Study of Metabolic Systems Biology", completed 2014).
Pietro Berti ('Fuelling Expectations: UK Biofuel Policy', completed 2014).
Sara Green (Aarhus, Denmark; 'Systems biology and the quest for organising principles'', completed 2014).
Luca Iori (PhD at the University of Bologna; 'Nazareno Strampelli and the development of agricultural genetics in Italy, 1910-1950', completed 2013).
Aleksandra Sojic (PhD at SEMM, Milan; 'Bio-ontologies and breast cancer research', completed 2012)
External impact and engagement
I am very interested in the social and political roles of science (understood in the broad sense of 'wissenschaft'), and keen to engage with policy makers, publishers, industries and institutions involved in the governance of multidisciplinary research, in particular open science guidelines and practices, incentives and conditions for data science and the automation of knowledge production, the management of data centres and infrastructures, the implementation of Open Data and Open Science, the transformation of Big Data into knowledge, and questions relating to translational research and the digital divide. I regularly tweet on my engagement activities as @sabinaleonelli .
Unti 2020, I was a member of the Open Science Policy Platform instituted by the European Commission in 2016 to assist with the implementation of Open Science policies. I acted as the Chair of its Open Science Publishing Working Group in 2017 and the Rapporteur for its Integrated Advice (which produced the OSPP-REC for the Competitiveness Council) in 2018.
I have also been a key expert in the Mutual Learning Exercise in "Open Science: Incentives and Rewards" organised by the DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission for 14 member states (Austria, Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland), which took place in 2017-2018, and a member of the Science Board of the European Open Science Cloud pilot project (2017-2019).
From 2019 to 2021, I am a Plan S Ambassador. In 2018 I co-authored the Young Academies Statement on Plan S, and continue to be actively involved in discussions on the future of scholarly publishing (see my 2019 interviews for ORION and the International Science Council).
I have been invited to present my work to a variety of learned societies, funding bodies and governmental agencies (such as the Royal Society, the European Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Swiss National Research Council, the National Library of Medicine, the AHRC, the Indian Statistical Institute), as well as prominent Open Science conferences and policy events in Europe (e.g. EU Presidency Amsterdam Open Science Conference, April 2016; Berlin 13 Conference Open Science, March 2017), and I regularly participate in public consultations by the UK government, European Commission and international organisations such as OECD and ICS.
Until 2017, I was an elected member to the Global Young Academy where I led the Working Group on Open Science. Key outputs included the GYA positions statements on Open Science and Open Data, and the GYA Report on Global Access to Research Software. In the fall of 2015, I represented the GYA at the World Science Forum in Budapest, and in 2017 I delivered a keynote lecture at the World Science Forum in Jordan (full text here). In 2016, I co-chaired the Position Statement on Open Data by European Young Academies of Science and the GYA, and presented it to EU Commissioner Moedas at the European Commission Open Science Conference in Amsterdam.
Since 2009 I also serve as an ex officio member of the steering committee of GARNet, for which I produced a report on data dissemination practices in plant science, and with whom I hosted the workshop "From Big Data to Discovery" in April 2016.
I am also strongly committed to enhancing the visibility and numbers of women in science as well as the humanities, and I have been senior co-Chair of the Women's Caucus of the European Philosophy of Science Association (2015-2019).
Finally, I am part of the steering committees of the following organisations within my field: the PhilSci-Archive, the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP), the UK Network for Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (UK iHPS) and the European Advanced School for Philosophy of Biology (EASPB). From 2014 to 2017, I served on the steering committee of the European Philosophy of Science Association.
I moved from Italy to London in 1997, to undertake a BSc course in History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science at the STS Department of University College London. Thanks to my great teachers, those three years had a crucial influence on my intellectual development. I then earned an MSc in History and Philosophy of Science at the London School of Economics and I worked as a research assistant to Hasok Chang in the 'Measurement' project at the Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science. I carried out my doctoral research in the Netherlands as part of the project ‘Understanding Scientific Understanding’ based at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, with Henk de Regt and Hans Radder. Between 2002 to 2007, I founded and served as the Editor-in-Chief for the Graduate Journal of Social Science and I followed the training provided by the WTMC (Netherlands Graduate School for Science, Technology and Modern Culture) and the Flemish-Dutch Graduate Network for the philosophy of science. Before landing in Exeter in 2008, I worked as a research officer in the Leverhulme/ESRC project ‘How Well Do ‘Facts’ Travel?’ based at the Department of Economic History of the London School of Economics and led by Mary Morgan.
I have been funded by several public and private bodies, including the European Research Council (Starting and Consolidator awards), the ESRC, the British Academy, the Alan Turing Institute, the EPSRC and the Leverhulme Trust, to carry out a variety of projects in the history, philosophy and social studies of science - especially biology, biomedicine and data science. Details of current projects, publications and other resources (including media, blogs and videos of lectures) are available here. I am a fellow of the Academie Internationale de Philosophie de la Science, the Academia Europaea and the Royal Society of Biology.
Aside from my main scholarly activities as a philosopher and historian of science, I have a strong interest in science policy and governance, inspired by my scholarly work on the epistemic, social and ethical dimensions of automation and data-intensive research. I have authored several policy reports, including one on the impact of big data on biomedicine for the Swiss government in 2017, one on Global Access to Research Software for the Global Young Academy in 2018, and three reports for the European Commission Mutual Learning Exercise "Open Science: Incentives and Rewards" in 2017 and 2018; and one for the Thinkers Programme of the Belgian Academy of Science in 2022. From 2012 to 2017 I was a member of the Global Young Academy, leading on their Open Science activities; from 2016 to 2020 I was a member of the Open Science Policy Platform of the European Commission.
I am Editor-in-Chief of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, for which I also served as Associate Editor from 2013 to 2018; and Subject Editor for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. I serve on the executive boards of the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice, the PhilSci-Archive (the open access archive for philosophy of science), the plant community GARNet and the journals Science, Technology and Human Values; The Reasoner; Big Data and Society; Social Epistemology; Data and Medicina e Storia. From 2013 to 2017 I served on the steering committee of the European Philosophy of Science Association (EPSA), as the Senior Co-Chair of the EPSA Women's Caucus (2015-2019), and EPSA VicePresident (2019-2023). Further, I am involved in the co-ordination of the UK Network for Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (meeting annually), the European Advanced Seminar in the Philosophy of the Life Sciences (meeting biannually) and the network for the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Science in the UK.
In the past, I have coordinated the postgraduate teaching in SPA and have served as diversity and inclusivity officer for the department. At the undergraduate level, I have offered an 'experimental' course to third-year philosophy students, in which they got to do original research and produce professional papers (the best outputs are published on the digital platform Pragmatism Tomorrow). I continue to teach classes at MA level, including a module on Data Ethics and Governance as well as a long-running module on Cultures of the Life Sciences.
I am a member of the Philosophy of Science Association, the European Philosophy of Science Association, the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology, the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society of Biology and the Society for the Philosophy of Information. I frequently serve as a referee for several journals in the philosophy, history and social studies of science, as well as funding bodies from the UK, EU, USA, Canada, Italy, Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium. I aim to referee at least one paper every month, though I frequently referee more.