Interview with Katie Plaisance

Actionable scholarship, she explains, looks at the implications of real-world knowledge creation, and what can been done with the accumulated knowledge. 

By: Dave Saldana

Dr. Katie Plaisance learned about structural resistance to “actionable philosophy” early in her academic career. She wrote an article about concepts of behavioral genetics, and how the topic was covered in the scientific and popular press, and submitted it to a leading journal in philosophy of science.

“The reviewers liked the first part, where I examined the science,” she says. “But when I discussed how the scientists could have engaged with the media so their research would be accurately represented, their response was, ‘We don’t care about that as philosophers.’”

It’s precisely that inward-looking, insular thinking that Plaisance and her colleagues at the Centre for Knowledge Integration at the University of Waterloo seek to eliminate. Both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, it “explore[s] interests on both sides of the traditional arts and science divide.”

While many in the upper echelons of academia have been promoting interdisciplinary scholarship, in practice, the effort becomes difficult in even the most supportive environments.

“There’s a definite need to increase the understanding of the challenges and barriers to successful interdisciplinary work,” Plaisance says.

First, one must learn significant portions of collaborators’ fields that she may have been only acquainted with previously. That takes time and effort, leading to a lag in publication and productivity, which can be a career killer because it frequently is devalued within one’s own department—those people who decide things like tenure and promotion.

“Once people learn how difficult it can be to do good interdisciplinary research, they often revert to their comfortable, familiar fields and work in isolation, then sort of stitch together what they’ve done separately,” she says. This multidisciplinary approach yields results less compelling than a true collaboration between experts of diverse fields.

Even when interdisciplinary scholarship is done well, Plaisance says, it is often undervalued.

“It’s sometimes not seen as very deep because its depth comes from joint scholarship, not from any particular discipline,” she explains. Because of the breadth of research, those who are trained and immersed in depth of research into a particular discipline cannot appreciate something outside that paradigm. “There just aren’t that many people versed across disciplines.”

Plaisance recognizes that she has a rare opportunity at Waterloo to take her research across many fields, and is “privileged” to do so where all levels of administration recognize the importance of outward-looking academia. That privilege grants her freedom to advocate science whose impact on public policy is known to all stakeholders: academy, scientists, policy makers, and public.

“A lot of philosophy work being done now is focused on how knowledge is created, or under what conditions better knowledge could be created. But that’s where it stops,” Plaisance says.

Actionable scholarship, she explains, looks at the implications of real-world knowledge creation, and what can been done with the accumulated knowledge.

“As philosophers, we create this knowledge and understand best what can be done with it,” she says. “There’s a parallel to be drawn with the scientists who understand their research best and are in a position to educate the public and policy makers.”

It’s rare when scientists voluntarily enter the public policy debates that their research can influence. Plaisance points to climate denial as an example where researchers could have taken steps to ensure that legislators, media, and the public understood better what climate change means, how it manifests itself, and its consequences if it is left unaddressed.

“To make science useful, we need to make it accessible to those in a position to implement it,” Plaisance says. “We make it inaccessible through the use of jargon and venues where the people most likely to do something with it can’t get it. We need to present it where it can be used.”

That the American Association for Advancement of Science did so with its “What We Know” about climate change in March 2014 was newsworthy mostly because it was such a novel step. The aggregation of climate change science, in small bites of easily understood data, reached a potential audience of millions as it was republished, reported on, and linked by scientific magazines, newspapers, environmental groups, blogs, and untold other outlets.

One difficulty of making that sort of science outreach regularly is finding an intermediary, Plaisance says, someone who can speak the language of each stakeholder community. Using rhetoric and language that communicates effectively with every group is vital to sharing the knowledge so it can be used effectively.

However, the result of such an effort is what makes it worthwhile, because it can turn science into action.

“You may see what’s happening, but if you don’t take that information and do something to apply it,” she asks, “really, what good is that research?”