ERC Starting Grant, March 2014 – February 2019

Research team

  • Principal Investigator: Sabina Leonelli (Note: on maternity leave mid-June to mid-October 2014)
  • Research Fellow: Niccolò Tempini (starting 1 November 2014)
  • PhD Student: Gregor Halfmann (starting 1 October 2014)
  • Advisory Board

Project goals

This project aims to develop a philosophy of data-intensive science that clarifies how research practices are changing in the digital age, and examines how this affects current understandings of scientific epistemology within the philosophy of science and beyond. To this aim, we examine data practices, travels and uses across a variety of disciplines, including plant science, biomedicine, particle physics, climate science, environmental science, archeology and economics. In particular, we focus on the impact that the increasing reliance on online databases has on the travel and re-use of scientific data. While the overarching goal of the project is philosophical, we ground philosophical analysis on historical and social scientific methods and findings, and conduct research in collaboration with leading scholars in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science.


The scale of scientific data production has massively increased over the last decades, raising urgent questions about how scientists are to transform the resulting masses of data into useful knowledge. A technical solution to this problem is offered by technologies for the storage, dissemination and handling of data over the internet, including online databases that enable scientists to retrieve and analyze vast amounts of data of potential relevance to their research. These technologies are having a profound effect on what counts as scientific knowledge and on how that knowledge is obtained and used. This is a step change in scientific methods, which scientists refer to as ‘data-intensive’ research. The characteristics and philosophical implications of this emerging way of doing science have not yet been extensively and systematically analyzed. This is partly due to the relative scarcity of empirical, qualitative research on how data disseminated online are actually used across scientific fields; and partly to the lack of scholarship bringing results from social and historical studies of data-intensive research to bear on philosophical accounts of scientific methods, practices and knowledge. This project aims to fill this gap by combining the analytic apparatus developed by philosophers of science with empirical, qualitative methods used by social scientists to investigate cutting-edge scientific practices.

Methods and timeline

In Phase 1 of the project (2014–2017), the research team will investigate how the use of online databases is affecting research practices and outcomes in two areas: plant science and biomedicine. This study will be carried out in collaboration with scholars conducting similar research on other fields, so as to facilitate comparison across different sciences.

In Phase 2 (2017–2019), Leonelli will use these results to analyze how data-intensive methods challenge existing philosophical understandings of the epistemic role of data, theory, experiments and division of labour in science, thus producing a systematic assessment of the implications of the rise of data-intensive research for how science is organized, conducted and assessed.

Key events

Exploratory Workshop What Is Data-Intensive Science?”, 17–19 December 2014

Key outputs

Coming soon.
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