dr. sabine baier
The first time that the unique role of narratives for scientific research caught my attention was during my PhD at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland. I was trying to distill the underlying epistemological concepts of early modern alchemical texts and practices by focusing on their ideas about nature and creativity and – by doing so – I was profoundly impressed by both the audacious and distinct awareness of the alchemists when it comes to their chosen verbal expressions, how they use narratives and, also by how much their style of writing differed from the way we create papers and books today. After finishing my thesis I decided to pursue the role of narratives in one of the modern day descendants of alchemical thinking and practice, i.e. industrial drug discovery.
Both endeavors – alchemy and modern day drug discovery – are hands-on projects while constantly trying to combine creation with healing. Given that the process of drug discovery can take up to 12 years to find and develop a new drug and that it is also a highly tenacious and interdisciplinary project, I had to narrow down my focus. I chose the stage of early molecular discovery where chemists in their labs are putting in a lot of effort to create a compound that is capable of tackling effectively the beforehand-identified biochemical target in the desired way.
Coming from philosophy of science and epistemology my main goal in studying narratives is to come up with an original understanding and interpretation of how narratives play a part in the production of knowledge and that is exclusive to narratives. Meaning, that the identified role of narratives must only be fulfilled by narratives and not by other, already well-explored epistemological concept like scientific theories, metaphors etc. in order to avoid selling old wine in new bottles.
Since I draw a lot of inspiration for my work from STS and also narratives are straightforwardly spoken very much words in action, I decided to go with a mixed methodological approach. I spent almost a year in the laboratories of Hoffmann-La Roche AG as well as Novartis AG in Basel, Switzerland, pursuing qualitative field studies, i.e. mainly observing and interviewing laboratory heads. Currently, I am in the second phase of my project where I am working on the epistemological interpretation of the results acquired during my field studies in the pharmaceutical industries with the ultimate goal to finish my second book on the epistemological role of narratives in industrial drug discovery.
The main argument I am making is that narratives serve as a sort of epistemological glue that allows the researcher to engage with their topic on an everyday basis. Therefore, narratives can be thought of as a space-organizing concept managing closeness-distance-relationships between the researcher and their work by creating just the right amount of excitement and friction within them that is necessary to continuously keep them going and motivated even under the most dull, boring and repetitive conditions. To explore this idea of excitement by the use of narratives the specific epistemological constraints in drug discovery have been proven to be particularly insightful because a) the chemical space is enormously vast and b) up to today, there is no such thing as an established theory of drug discovery. The laboratory heads are left behind in a vast desert of similar appearing options with barely any means at hand to navigate it than mere repetition. So, they start creating narratives about their work that are capable of transforming an otherwise monotonous and repetitive research landscape into a profoundly exciting and, therefore, also navigable one.