EGENIS seminar: "Out of control: creating reliable data in the laboratory", Dr Stephan Guttinger (University of Exeter)

Egenis seminar series

An Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences seminar
Date8 November 2021
Time15:30 to 17:00
PlaceOnline event.

The idea of experimental control is often associated with positive notions such as reliability, certainty, and reproducibility; control is seen as part of what makes the laboratory-based sciences powerful and trustworthy. It is part of the reason why scientists can create reliable data. However, like in society, control can also have a negative effect: exert too much of it and you stifle freedom, creativity, and exploration. This is a problem for science. As Hans-Jörg Rheinberger has highlighted, experimental systems cannot become too rigid and standardized because science depends on a certain openness to unfold its full potential; uncertainty and fuzziness are at the heart of the experimental process.

This points to a fundamental tension regarding the use of control in experimental practice: impose too little control and researchers struggle to obtain reliable data. Impose too much control and research systems become mere ‘kits’ that cannot produce novel insights or challenge existing wisdom. How this tension plays out in actual practice depends, in part at least, on how ‘control’ is conceptualised and implemented.

The goal of my talk is to investigate how control is used in everyday practice and how researchers use it to establish a balance between rigidity and openness. I will argue that control is realised in a way that allows for a certain uncertainty, keeping a delicate balance between the closing down and opening up of different experimental trajectories.

My investigation will proceed in three steps. First, I will propose a rough typology that identifies two types of ‘control’ and two roles these controls play in practice. I will then apply this typology to the case of protein biology and show how the different forms and roles of control work together to create an ‘outcome matrix’. This matrix can be more or less rigid, allowing the researcher to create experimental spaces with differing degrees of openness. I will end by reflecting on what an account of control-in-practice can tell us about certainty and the laboratory as a space of knowledge generation.

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