New institute bridges humanities, sciences

The Department of Philosophy is bringing together two strong but traditionally separate areas – ethics and philosophy of science – with the establishment of the Joseph L. Rotman Institute of Science and Values.



Through the Joseph L. Rotman Institute of Science and Values, co-founders Charles Weijer (director) and Robert Batterman look to create a better understanding of the partnership between ethics and the philosophy of science.


Created in November, the institute builds on the existing Science, Epistemology, and Ethics Research (SEER) Lab, and is already up and running in renovated space in Talbot College.


The institute was made possible through a donation from Western alumnus Joseph Rotman (BA’57).


Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Bioethics professor Charles Weijer (Philosophy and Medicine) co-founded the institute with fellow Rotman CRC in Philosophy of Science, professor Robert Batterman. Weijer feels these collaborative efforts have already borne fruit and resulted in a number of ongoing projects, including an international collaboration with leading scientists in knowledge translation research in medicine.


As a result of the gift, the current SEER Lab will be transformed into the new Joseph L. Rotman Institute of Science and Values, with an expanded membership, academic mandate and public profile.


“The vision of the institute is to become a global centre of excellence in the investigation of ethical and epistemological issues in contemporary science,” says Weijer, director of the institute. “The realization of this goal can only strengthen the already strong reputation the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Department of Philosophy currently enjoys.”


During the mid and late 20th century, Weijer says the field of science and values was characterized by a narrow focus on philosophical issues in the abstract and a failure to engage with the nitty-gritty of scientific practice.

“During this time, discussion served mainly to strengthen sharp divisions between those interested in values in science and those who worked in traditional philosophy of science,” says Weijer, adding the institute will take a leadership role in breaking down these barriers and building bridges between the humanities and sciences.


“The institute’s emphasis on engaging with scientists in their ongoing projects will help to reshape the state of the field and make it a model of interdisciplinary inquiry,” adds Batterman.


“(We) are already examining an extremely rich set of questions at the interface between the ethics and epistemology of contemporary science which will deepen our understanding of scientific practice and the transmission and application of scientific knowledge.”


The institute will be integrated into the Department of Philosophy. Weijer and members of the steering committee (Gillian Barker, Henrik Lagerlund, James Overton and Chris Smeenk) were elected by the department.


“This close relationship gives the institute immediate access to the wealth of expertise in philosophy of science, ethics and history of science in the department,” says Batterman.


Weijer says the institute will benefit from the fact graduate students are primarily drawn from the doctoral program in philosophy. It is seeking to fill two post-doctoral fellowships and hopes to expand faculty membership from across Western.


The institute will also hire a junior faculty member, host visiting scholars and organize workshops and international conferences.


Weijer recalls a visit from Rotman early last year where he spoke to students one-on-one.


“Mr. Rotman is an inspiration to our students,” he says, noting his enthusiasm is infectious. “He sat down for an hour with our then seven doctoral students and two post-doctoral fellows. It was a remarkable meeting. He went around the room, asking each student what they are working on and how they plan to make a difference in the world – a question not often asked of young philosophers.”


Weijer and Batterman feel the timing of the donation, with the global economic crisis in full swing, is particularly significant.


“His message to other philanthropists was clear; this is the time universities need your support, says Batterman. “This creates a great sense of responsibility that we both share to work as hard as we can to make the institute a great success.”