Higher education Science policy
Flagging problems of capture
February 14, 2017
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The notion of disciplinary capture is a very useful conceptual tool, introduced in slightly different contexts: Brister (2016) in relation to the dynamics within interdisciplinary teams, and Frodeman, Briggle & Holbrook (2012) as well as Briggle and Frodeman (2016) in relation to the way that departmental and other academic structures influence the direction of philosophical inquiry. In this post, I’ll unpack the notion of disciplinary capture, and introduce a new analogue: “sectoral capture.” The notion of sectoral capture will help us to grapple with a whole range of problems, to be explored in future posts.

Disciplinary capture

In her paper, Brister outlines a narrative of a conservation policy project that includes researchers from many domains of inquiry, including those found in the natural and the social sciences. In this anecdote, she insightfully highlights how the different background knowledge, evidentiary standards, causal understandings of the world (as well as other broad theoretical commitments), and research goals across disciplines present serious obstacles to the co-production of knowledge by research teams spanning gaps between disciplines. For instance, the natural scientists in this conservation research story strongly favoured controlled-trial experiments, while the social scientists had strong ethical concerns about the risks of harm to which local populations would be exposed. Furthermore, when policies fail, the natural scientist might look to identify the actions that caused the undesirable outcome, whereas the social scientist might tend to seek out the political underpinnings for why a certain group undertook this action—a whole different plane of causes is considered relevant by these groups.

Having diagnosed these tensions as deep disagreements about the world and its nature, Brister highlights the need for research programs to be co-designed from a very early stage. If the architecture of a research project is allowed to mature and solidify too much before a variety of stakeholders are involved, it will tend to settle itself into one disciplinary home, in which all others can be no more than visitors. This is the phenomenon of disciplinary capture, which “can result when a single discipline’s constellation of epistemological commitments dominates methodological decisions.” When one discipline is allowed a primary status, allowed to be the filter for epistemological standards through which those of other disciplines must pass, we find ourselves in a situation of disciplinary capture. The resulting “interdisciplinary” work is actually a work that is at home in one discipline while plugging in some add-on components from elsewhere—rather than actually positioning itself in the space between disciplines.

Captured minds and (institutional) bodies

Moving to the discussions by Frodeman and friends, in this case the authors describe tensions that have not only an epistemic component, but also psychological and institutional components.

Psychologically the point can be put in terms of comfort zones, the desire to occupy a domain small enough where one feels confident making authoritative claims. Epistemologically it becomes a matter of theoretical rigor …. Institutionally it is reflected in the standards of peer review, the process whereby academics establish a collective identity and social credibility. For without that community of reference, how can the quality of research be certified as “good philosophy”? The need to survive, gain a job, and earn tenure drives many philosophers away from other fields and back into their disciplinary or subdisciplinary fold. (Briggle and Frodeman 2016, 34)

In brief, the epistemic components, already covered by Brister, have broader effects on the institutional structures in which they operate and the experiences of those practitioners working in these structures.

In the case of Brister, the problematic outcome that she highlights is work that strives to span disciplinary gaps, but that actually ends up always working from one disciplinary home base. For Frodeman, Briggle and Holbrook, the problem they identify is that the institutional setting of philosophy actually itself undermines the possibility of doing a whole range of important work. This range includes an authentic engagement with research in other disciplines, with the public sphere, and basically with any material that is not considered part of the philosophical cannon. Brister worries that disciplinary capture undermines interdisciplinarity; Frodeman et al. worry that disciplinary capture actually undermines even the disciplinary pursuit of philosophy, because the disciplinary structure never allows itself to be questioned, erecting a sacred idol in philosophy where none ought to be tolerated. (For those interested in their full treatment of disciplinary capture in philosophy, check out their recent book, which I devoured.)

Sectoral capture

I promised at the outset to introduce sectoral capture, and now that disciplinary capture has been outlined, let’s get right to that. Whereas disciplinary capture threatens to undermine truly interdisciplinary collaboration, sectoral capture similarly threatens to undermine truly intersectoral collaboration. Sectoral capture occurs when one sector (government, business, academia) has disproportionate say in determining the framework—goals, approach, organizational structure, culture—in which an intersectoral “collaborative” project takes place. For instance, when an academic researcher partners with industry and demands that the project must at all costs result in a publishable paper, this is sectoral capture. When a government representative insists on using Robert’s Rules of Order to manage meetings—and no one else in the team knows them—this is sectoral capture.

Sectoral capture is an important problem, one that we have been struggling with in science & technology policy for a number of years, though perhaps not recognizing it as such. When a government research lab is made over “from a paragon of basic research into a toolbox for industry,” we’re simply bouncing from one end of the spectrum over to the other, from a situation where the academic sector is allowed primary status to a situation where private industry is allowed primary status. (The echoing footsteps of this problem already reverberate as soon as we bring in a pure–applied distinction, in fact.)

The resolution to problems of capture is to think about the pressures at stake in the various groups involved in a collaborative project, covering many dimensions: epistemological, institutional, psychological (and, I’ll argue in future posts, even the political and the pragmatic). Here are my proposals for what we have to start doing:

  1. We need to acknowledge that within our own sectors there are both virtuous and vicious pressures. Intersectoral collaboration can help us to sort out which are which.
  2. We usually know our own sectoral worlds quite well, but we need to better understand better how the other half lives. This means genuinely engaging with them. There’s a mediating role to be played here as well.
  3. We need to support colleagues who engage across sectoral boundaries, and we need to be supported in our own such adventures. This support has a cultural component, in addition to a professional component: meaningful evaluation and reward systems, as well as support for developing relevant skills (and character!), including resources for students and people early in their careers. Current “broader impact” criteria are so far not up to this task.
  4. We need to balance an openness to seeing our beliefs and values evolve through contact with others, with a genuine desire to see these beliefs and values contributing to the complexion of what together we will build. This includes accepting that science will be politicized, along with the belief that this process will be better with us involved than without.
  5. We need to just get started already! The best time to start was decades ago. The second-best time is right now.


Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.


About the author

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is the Senior Policy Officer at Science-Metrix in Montreal, where he puts his background in philosophy of science to good use in helping policy types and technical types to understand each other a little better every day. He also takes gleeful pleasure in unearthing our shared but buried assumptions, and generally gadfly-ing everyone in his proximity. He is interested in policy for science as well as science for policy (i.e., evidence-based decision-making), and is progressively integrating himself into the development of new bibliometric indicators at Science-Metrix to address emerging policy priorities. Before working at Science-Metrix, Brooke worked for the Canadian Federal Government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Guelph and a BA with honours in philosophy from McGill University.

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