Instances of change such as the exposome approach call for an expansion of the philosophy of scientific change, with the goal of making sense of new cases of change and complementing available models. In the previous section, I have mentioned other and more recent developments in the philosophy of scientific change: many of these are indeed ways to expand philosophical approaches to change, and not just rebuttals of traditional perspectives (Soler et al., 2017). In particular, I argue that three main methodological features are shared across new discussions of scientific change and have significant consequences for the way we should approach change: the focus on contemporary cases of change; the attention to the small-scale at which change can happen; and the expansion of the units of change beyond theoretical and conceptual components (Ankeny & Leonelli, 2016; Gross et al., 2019; Herfeld & Lisciandra, 2019; Shan, 2019). Together with the more traditional work discussed in the previous section, these contributions constitute the main starting point of my work. What I think is lacking in this line of work is the development of specific approaches to change, at least in a similar sense to which the revolutionary and linear approaches are models of change. The development of models of change is significant philosophically and beyond: models can give us a specific picture and understanding of change, make assumptions explicit, and signal phenomena and aspects that can instantiate change in contemporary science. Furthermore, several different approaches can be developed on the basis of recent work on scientific change, so it is crucial to clarify which approach needs to be applied to specific cases of change. Approaches and models are also useful to detail the specific processes though which change happens – something that various work in current philosophy of science does, but with little discussion of the interrelations between these processes and the overall picture of change that is their product. Following these considerations, my contribution to the debate is a pragmatic approach, which puts the emphasis on processes of transfer, alignment, and influence; and identifies, in pragmatic terms, types of processes that may differ substantially depending on the specific circumstances. For example, the type of transfer at the basis of the exposome approach is very much specific to the recent and current state of epidemiology and would not necessarily translate to other contexts. The ways in which influence is exerted in biomedical research is also very different from other contexts, where for instance broad narratives of benefits that are typical of health-related research are not present.
Transfer: Initiating change
A first process of change that the pragmatic approach identifies is transfer – the process that generates and starts change. Transfer can concern conceptual elements such as specific understandings, notions, theories, as well material, methodological, social, and technological components. Transferring usually happens from one area of research, project, or discipline to another. The transferred elements can kick-start change as novelties for the area where they are introduced, but their adaptation to the new context of use can also lead to changes and updates to the elements themselves. Transfer creates change with usually strong continuity between areas of transfer – this continuity, however, is mostly at a horizontal, rather than vertical level: continuity with respect to other areas of research, rather than previous or existing work in the same field.
As such, transfer can take different forms depending on which components are transferred and which consequences transfer has – in this sense, transfer can be conceptual, methodological, technological, organisational. In many cases, transfer that elicits scientific change is knowledge transfer, which can include theories, models, evidence (Herfeld & Lisciandra, 2019). Yet transfer in the sciences is increasingly present at other levels. In the biomedical sciences, consider the case of the Human Genome Project and its significance as a cluster of new methodological tools and organisational schemes that have been transferred to so many other areas of research. The philosophical, sociological, historical literature on the Human Genome Project has shown crucial features of transfer as a process of change: not all components of the Human Genome Project have been successfully transferred to new areas of research and transfer has elicited change by presenting novelty to new fields, but also by substantially changing the original elements (Hilgartner, 2017). As a result, transferring a conceptual component can clearly lead to conceptual changes, but also methodological and organisational changes: as such, transfer can create different requirements for what needs to be aligned and how and is thus crucially tied to the second process of change that I discuss below. This is one of the reasons why I present my approach as pragmatic: we need to be open to model different types of components that may be transferred and different processes that results from transfer and are related to alignment. Depending on the specific case of scientific change that we want to analyse, some types of transfer and change might be more relevant to focus on than others.
In the case of exposome research, transfer has mostly worked at conceptual and methodological levels. As we have seen, the notion of internal exposure has been transferred from biomarkers and exposure science, as a way of framing the internal dimension of the exposome and conceptualising molecular reactions to the environment as kinds of exposure. Moreover, so much of the exposome as an approach can be considered an extension of omics technologies and data into epidemiology – in this sense, the EXPOsOMICS project included specific teams with an expertise on molecular biology, sequencing, and genomics to apply omics techniques to exposure profiles. The transfer of these elements has created changes in the conceptual dimension and practical application of the exposome approach in epidemiology, but also kick-started reflections at the methodological level, leading for instance to the development of the Meet-In-The-Middle approach (Chadeau-Hyam et al., 2011).
At the same time, the case of transfer in exposome research has not included only literal applications of available material: it has led to original modifications and new uses. For example, the way in which internal exposure has been conceptualised and applied in projects such as EXPOsOMICS is a partial step beyond the use of the concept in biomarkers and exposure science – it is not just a way of conceptualising the concentration of external agents in blood, but also processes in reaction to those agents, such as inflammation. Similarly, omics techniques were originally developed in the context of sequencing and genomic projects and their application for exposure profiles has led to the development of specific techniques for this new use. For example, EXPOsOMICS was one of the first groups to invest in the development and application of adductomics, an omics technique that measures the binding of proteins to specific toxicants and was used to study the long-term effects of exposure on protein development. As such, transfer has created change and innovation both for epidemiology and the original areas from which the elements were moved from – to the point that the exposome approach shows little epistemic dominance within epidemiology and significant continuity with respect to areas including biomarkers science and genomics. A plurality of approaches to the issue of disease aetiology and analysis are indeed present in the current landscape of epidemiological research, which have not necessarily been replaced by the exposome approach (Broadbent, 2021; Vandenbroucke et al., 2016); and pluralistic conceptualisations and approaches to what counts as environment exist in various areas of the health sciences (Canali & Leonelli, 2022).
Processes of transfer and continuity place the pragmatic approach relatively far from revolutionary accounts, which identify precisely in the disruption and absence of continuity brought by revolutions the mark of scientific change. The change brought by processes of transfer is in this sense closer to ideas of pluralisation discussed in recent work by Fridolin Gross, Nina Kranke, and Robert Meunier (Gross et al., 2019). Transfer is also one of the processes that can lead to the establishment of the research repertoires discussed by Ankeny and Leonelli, and the exposome approach can in a way be seen as one of the available research repertoires of current epidemiology (Leonelli & Ankeny, 2015). In the context of exposome projects such as EXPOsOMICS, continuity has been crucial to establish collaborations, integrate discourses and narratives from other areas of research, and present innovation in their connection: some of the rhetoric of the exposome approach is inspired by the genome and its success at securing funding, with the presentation of the exposome as both a complement to the genome and a way of filling in the gaps of genomic research, especially when it comes to disease aetiology (Rappaport & Smith, 2010). The continuity identified by the pragmatic approach exists horizontally here, between different areas of research and fields rather than historically within a specific area of research.
Continuity shows two additional and crucial features of transfer as one of the processes modelled by the pragmatic approach. Facilitators play a crucial role in processes of transfer and can make or break transfer, by translating components between different areas and promoting alignment, or making it easier to transfer components at the start point of research. The case of the exposome approach is particularly interesting in this sense. Epidemiology tends to lack strict criteria at the educational, methodological, and conceptual level and projects such as EXPOsOMICS usually include statisticians, medical doctors, biologists, computer scientists – several of these researchers can play the role of facilitators and have done so in EXPOsOMICS. However, the transfer of genomic approaches and omics data has also created barriers for further interdisciplinarity, as data collection techniques that are more traditional of epidemiology are significantly different in terms of volume, tractability, analytic techniques and the use of omics is arguably pushing in different directions. For instance, EXPOsOMICS researchers sometimes lamented the lack of interdisciplinary communication and understanding of the data practices involved in omics and GIS and the use of genomic approaches has sometimes been discussed as reductionistic. A second point that is important to stress and is interesting to see in the case of the exposome is the relation between transfer and time, as a feature of change. In most cases, transfer is the first chronological process that elicits the types of change modelled by pragmatic approaches, or at least is the first process that can signal change and show the need to focus more on a specific case. It is difficult to determine the starting point of processes of change in the context of the exposome, which was introduced at a specific point in time as a concept (Wild, 2005). This concept included internal exposure, which as we have seen has played an important role for connections with other communities and areas of research. At the same time, the methodological transfer of omics techniques into epidemiology was presented as a crucial starting point for change already at the introduction of the concept – it seems difficult to say that change started with either cases of transfer, but both processes signal the need to focus on this as a case of scientific change.
Alignment: Establishing change
A second process of change highlighted by the pragmatic approach is alignment. Logically – and in most cases chronologically – this is the step that comes after transfer and concerns the integration of the transferred elements into the new context and the adaptation of other research components to the new arrival. Alignment is a re-configuration of available material that can affect methodological, conceptual, material, social, methodological elements of research. Successful alignment instantiates change as it shapes several aspects of research projects, including theories, strategies, funding, disciplinary backgrounds – to the point that alignment can create previously non-existent or significantly renovated areas of research.
The exposome approach showcases this process at several levels, for instance at the material and methodological level, in the case of omics techniques and data.Footnote 12 As we have seen, one of the innovations of the exposome approach has been the introduction of these data and related analytic techniques developed in the genomic context. This transfer, however, has not been responsible for change directly on its own: omics data have substantially different features from the traditional datasets used in epidemiology, at the level of abstraction, volume, material, format. As a result, in projects such as EXPOsOMICS, the need to align omics data with the latter and other sources has elicited the development of new epistemic strategies, which in turn has led to the use of additional and new data such as GIS data. The study of the exposome has in this sense been one of the main ways in which molecular approaches have been introduced into the epidemiology, with a move that has contrasted with the more traditional population thinking approach and focus of epidemiological methodology (Morabia, 2004). Alignment is also a contested aspect of the exposome approach, which has been criticised as an extension of the reductionism of genomic approaches and the molecularisation of social determinants of health and disease (Richardson & Stevens, 2015).
Thus, the types of elements transferred through the exposome approach (omics data) have created the need to align material and methodological components of epidemiology (data analysis, statistical approaches, etc.), resulting in a specific type of alignment and change (the exposome approach). But alignment can vary considerably in relation to the types of elements that are transferred and need to be aligned: just like transfer can be conceptual, methodological, technological, organisational, so alignment can focus on conceptual, methodological, technological, organisational components. The interrelations between transfer and alignment can be more complex still – transferring a conceptual component into a new area of research can clearly create the need for conceptual alignment, but methodological and organisational components might need to be aligned too. For instance, the transfer of omics data in the case of the exposome approach has created the need for alignment with other data and the collection of new data. But alignment has also been necessary beyond this level, for example with the development of new statistical approaches and epistemic strategies, or at the organisational level with the establishment of collaborations for data collection and analysis for both omics and GIS data. This is the point where we also see the possible limitations of alignment in the context of the exposome. As we have seen, the employment of omics and GIS techniques and data has been at the basis of the raise of molecular and microscopic approaches to the study of exposure and disease. The extent to which these approaches can be aligned with existing methodologies in epidemiology, however, is the object of ongoing discussions in the field and the exposome has only partially settled these issues. Success at alignment is and will be crucial for the future history of exposome research as a case of change as a process of change, alignment is another point where change can both be elicited and hindered.
These considerations render alignment as a process that can take many forms and – much like transfer – shows the need for a pragmatic interpretation of the processes that can elicit change and vary substantially in concrete cases. Focusing on single components, for instance theories or technology, can help specify analyses of scientific change, but also lead incomplete pictures of change. For instance, omics data have clearly played a crucial role for the innovations of exposome research and methodology, but their use was only possible thanks to additional changes and their alignment with new and existing approaches – to the point that focusing on data only gives us an incomplete picture of the processes of change in case of the exposome approach. This is the point where technological narratives often fail in modelling scientific change: for instance, views of big data as scientific revolutions have often framed data as automatic sources of change for scientific epistemology, but cases such as omics data clearly show a more complex picture – data are often and perhaps increasingly sources of change, but change is mediated by alignment and thus involves other components too.Footnote 13
Alignment is a crucial point of discussion in science studies, for instance in the context of work resulting from “practice turn” (Bschir et al., 2019; Soler et al., 2017). In philosophy of science, the analysis of processes of alignment for scientific change is relatively recent and has often been the result of going beyond theory-centred models of change and focusing on other components as forces of change, for instance in work on collaborative research (Ankeny & Leonelli, 2020). The focus on alignment as part of the pragmatic approach is also connected to the concept of integration, which has been substantially discussed by philosophers, especially philosophers of biology (Brigandt, 2010). Integration practices are a way in which alignment can be achieved and can be used as a focus for a discussion of the ways in which conceptual, material, and methodological components are aligned (Leonelli, 2013b). For example, in crucial work in the philosophy of scientific data, the concept of data journeys has been used to discuss the practices that ‘prepare’ data for transfer to new areas of research, which shows the need for these practices and counter simplistic views of data as immediate representations of reality (Leonelli, 2016, Chapters1–2). The pragmatic approach shows that this type of data practices has a significant effect on the ways in which and the extent to which data can be aligned and thus create change. Choices at the level of data journeys have consequences on the feasibility of data integration as well as the possibilities and forms of scientific change. These considerations on alignment and data journeys indicate a crucial role for data curators and stewards as facilitators of alignment and change – if data are curated and presented in ways that enable journeys and transfers, there will also be clear indications for the types of alignment needed. The case of exposome research shows these relations between alignment and data practices and journeys in several ways. For instance, the relatively open disciplinary barriers of epidemiology have enabled epidemiologists in exposome projects to play the role of coordinators between difference disciplines and thus facilitators of processes of alignment. This does not mean that alignment has been an automatic process, however, nor that it is an aspect of change that takes place only at the chronological start of histories of change. Alignment processes are clearly reactions to processes of transfer and thus are often a second chronological step in cases of change, but for example the need to integrate and align omics data with existing and new methodologies in exposome research frames alignment as an ongoing process that requires constant attention – especially in connection to the further establishment and expansion of change in a data-intensive context.
Influence: Extending and expanding change
A final process that the pragmatic approach to change underlines and is a result of transfer and alignment is what I call influence – the epistemic, material, and social power that can come as a consequence of change. This is a process that can be considered the endpoint of change discussed by the model, in a dynamic sense potentially leading to further updates and changes. Influence is directly tied to both transfer and alignment. Transferring established components can create situations where innovations can also exert their influence on other and new spaces, for instance by aligning them to the methods, concepts, materials transferred from another area of research. In turn, without alignment influence can hardly have an impact in a new context. Processes of alignment, as we have seen, can include the establishment of collaborations between different fields, thus potentially also enabling bridges between disciplines where a case of scientific change can extend its influence on a new field. In addition, the innovations elicited by transfer and established through alignment can extend the influence of concepts, methods, materials into new areas of the same field – as we see in part in the case of the exposome.
Influence is also a process that looks beyond the processes of change discussed so far and is tied with other processes involved in future changes. In this sense, influence can be seen as chronologically happening at the end or the start of histories of scientific change, but also throughout a specific history of change. For instance, the new methodological tools and data of omics techniques have been an initiator of change in many areas of research in the life sciences, to the point that some have argued that they have contributed to establish a post-genomic era in biomedical research (Richardson & Stevens, 2015). The case of the exposome approach can thus be seen as instance of influence from genomics into new disciplines, in this case epidemiology. However, the case of exposome research also shows an active role for influence – the exposome has been presented as an umbrella concept that can be applied to other disciplines in the health sciences, including for instance exposure science, but also other areas of research within epidemiology, such as areas of research beyond environmental epidemiology.Footnote 14 There is also another time component where we can see influence in action, as in some cases of change influence can take place at an early stage, as a way to start transfer and alignment. The initial introduction of the concept of the exposome by Wild (2005) was clearly directed at epidemiology, but not only, and the introduction of the exposome as a new concept capable of influencing other fields can be seen as way of legitimating the need to change and introduce a new approach through transfer and alignment.
The history of the exposome in this sense is only partially written, and not only as a consequence of its recent history – the influence of the exposome notion and approach is still uncertain and unsettled. While the exposome approach clearly benefits from dedicated funding streams, individual centres, and research consortia, as we have seen, there are significant limitations to the influence of the exposome approach in the current landscape of biomedical research and epidemiology in particular. For example, EXPOsOMICS researchers lamented the lack of ‘blue-skies’ funding that is dedicated to genomic and sequencing projects. Exposome projects are mostly funded on a short-term basis this is problematic because often there is not enough time to analyse and process the large datasets collected through omics and GIS techniques, long-term collaborations are more difficult to establish, and there is a constant need to pitch and propose new research ideas and topics. In turn, typically epidemiological research takes a very long time and needs longitudinal studies that look at the slow development and effects of exposure. The main way in which exposome research groups have tried to approach these issues is through the establishment of research consortia, whose composition is often partially retained though different projects, such as in the case of EXPOsOMICS. Through the pragmatic approach we can model these struggles for funding as elements of influence, in particular as tests for the establishment of an approach within a larger field. The establishment of funding streams dedicated to the exposome approach within the larger field of epidemiology has enabled additional transfer and alignment of the approach, but in addition it has also created cases where approaches from other fields beyond epidemiology try and pitch their research as a response to these funding calls and thus aligning with the conceptual, methodological, material framework of the exposome.
At the same time, while work on the exposome is increasingly present in the biomedical literature (Siroux et al., 2016), the extent to which the notion of the exposome has complemented the genome and moved research beyond the genomic focus remains unclear. As we have seen, the study of the exposome is largely based on the transfer of genomic technologies and as such it has been criticised because of possibly similar reductionist conclusions (Shostak & Moinester, 2015). Nevertheless, the postgenomic context is increasingly varied and diverse and the study of exposome sits at the intersection of various trends in this sense, including the push to focus more on the environment, the expansion of the notion of exposure, and the study of climatic and environmental data in biomedicine (Leonelli & Tempini, 2021). Data play an interesting role in the context of these considerations. Scientific data are increasingly assets for political, economic, as well as epistemic interests (Leonelli, 2019b): in this sense, data can also play an important role to extend the influence of a case of scientific change. Consider for example the establishment of dedicated databases where a specific approach is systematically applied for data collection, interpretation, and use: in several cases in the life sciences, historically the establishment of a new approach to the study of biological phenomena has been tied to the collection of data and the raise of community databases (see e.g. the case of model organisms: Ankeny & Leonelli, 2011; Lohse, 2021). In this sense, the lack of funding dedicated to data practices is increasingly an obstacle to change, and the availability of large datasets that are already available can actually inhibit innovation and the collection of new data (Leonelli, 2019a).
This is one of the areas where the pragmatic approach brings in lessons from revolutionary models of change. From a Kuhnian point of view, new paradigms exert influence over specific areas of research, if not entire disciplines, with the methodological success of solving some new problems, the social abilities connected to establishing teaching and training programmes, the epistemic appeal of new frameworks and world views (Kuhn, 1962, chapter X). Similarly, the pragmatic approach identifies influence as a crucial aspect to maintain, promote, and establish change, but the type and means of influence of the pragmatic approach can vary substantially. The connection with transfer and alignment renders a type of influence that is less dominant and more local to specific disciplines. In addition, this influence of new and changing concepts such as the exposome is exerted through collaborations and alliances, rather than disruption and revolutions. For example, the group responsible for EXPOsOMICS has been successful in expanding its influence by establishing various collaborations, especially beyond epidemiology, with genomics, the social sciences, geography, information science (Illari & Russo, 2016; Russo & Vineis, 2016).Footnote 15