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Sabina Leonelli

Professor Sabina Leonelli, Turing Fellow and dhCenter Scientific Committee Member, gave a short interview on the Alan Turing Institute website. Her researches consider how we can responsibly connect data across climate, health, agricultural and environmental research.

What are you working on at the moment?

This term I am teaching an extensive module in data ethics and governance to 200 data scientists and have also just delivered the final manuscript of a textbook, forthcoming with SAGE, to support this kind of training. On the research front I am hosting a series of seminars that bring together leading experts in data science, policy and social studies in relation to the plant and agricultural sciences.

The series builds on my current Turing project, which focuses on the conditions under which data relating to food security can be shared effectively and responsibly. We will be addressing questions of central importance to data science and AI in this area – for instance, what plant data is available for future research, to whom and why? What rights do farmers, breeders and agrotech industries have on such data? What data infrastructures and semantics are required to support transnational plant data sharing and AI applications to agriculture? And how do these exchanges relate to existing policies and conceptions of agricultural development?

Most surprising thing to come from your research? 

The relative lack of public engagement on the ethics of data sharing in agriculture constantly amazes me. In particular, in comparison to the field of biomedicine where a key concern is avoiding harm to data subjects.

Plants are fundamental components of human life and a key part of the global economy and planetary health. Given this, it should not be surprising that plant data raises many similar concerns to biomedical data in terms of what it can reveal – or conceal – about human societies, policies and ways of life. Cultural and social assumptions about what counts as good quality of life, for example, underpin many of the parameters used when collecting, processing and measuring plant data. This calls for research and training that fosters understanding and engagement with these assumptions and their implications for society.

Career highlight so far?

Beyond my academic work, a highlight has been serving as expert for the European Commission and other international organisations that support transnational and transdisciplinary collaboration, such as the International Science Council. This work was complemented by active service within scholarly societies and academies such as the Global Young Academy. From September 2021, I will be fostering such collaborations through my newly awarded European Research Council (ERC) project “A Philosophy of Open Science for Diverse Research Environments” (PHIL_OS), which will consider what openness means within the highly unequal landscape of global research.

Read the full interview on the Alan Turing Institute website.

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