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June 2011


Director of the Fundación General CSIC

Frontier research: bringing the future closer

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In his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Thomas Kuhn describes a model of the dynamics of science characterised by periods of calm, which he calls normal science, governed by a particular paradigm which provides a conceptual and methodological framework with which to find the answers to questions considered relevant within the context of that paradigm. These periods of calm are interrupted when anomalies in the paradigms emerge, questions arise that cannot be answered, or findings and observations are made that contradict one or more of the principles under­pinning the paradigm. In Kuhn’s view, it is in these phases of crisis and agitation that paradigm shifts take place: i.e. scientific revolutions which change the course of development of science in a particular area. Sometimes these paradigms are not directly comparable with those they have displaced (something which Kuhn another philosophers of science, such as Paul Feyerabend and to some extent Imre Lakatos, have called the incommensurability of paradigms, a controversial concept, subsequently discussed and qualified by Kuhn) and may even coexist, although describing different realities or operating on different scales, such as Newtonian mechanics and relativistic mechanics.

Towards the end of his life, Kuhn moved away from the notion of scientific revolutions understood in terms of the process of stabilisation and destabilisation of para­digms, and embraced a somewhat different concept based on conceptual and methodological isolation of scientific disciplines from one another. The disciplines end up splitting off from one another not only because they use different language, but because the concepts and meth­odological frameworks are so different that they end up inhabiting different universes.

Although the evolution –rather than revolution– of science has important com­ponents that are more sociological than epistemological, the Kuhnian concept of a paradigm can be useful when addressing the subject of frontier research, since the gradual creation of new paradigms that open the way for unexpected dimensions of knowledge to emerge is a property that, while not exclusive to frontier research, is highly characteristic of it.

What is frontier research?
A simple definition of frontier research could be “research taking place at the frontiers of knowledge,” perhaps qualifying this definition with “in a particular area or field.” This definition is clearly somewhat imprecise, however. Indeed, argu­ably it dodges the question, as it pushes the definition back a step, to the question of the frontiers of knowledge, and fails to offer a distinguishing feature with which to identify frontier research as all research is about something unknown and can potentially contribute new knowledge. Therefore, on this basis all research would be frontier research, because it takes place at the frontier between what is known and what is not. This conclusion is obviously unsatisfactory as we want to be able to distinguish between genuine frontier research and other research which we might call “mainstream” (or normal science in Kuhn’s terms).

It may be helpful to list a few of the aspects that characterise frontier research. For example, 1) it usually addresses issues about which there is considerable controversy in the scientific community in the area in which they are being explored; (2) it deals with questions that are hard to answer, at least by applying the normal methodological approaches; (3) it employs methodologies and concepts that are atypical for the field concerned; (4) it takes unexpected findings that challenge the dominant paradigm as its starting point; (5) and, continuing from the previous point, it focuses on issues whose resolution is key to confirming (or rebutting) the prevailing paradigm; and (6) it involves research with a very high degree of uncertainty as to its likelihood of success, and so on. Not all frontier research meets all these criteria. What most often seems to be the common feature of frontier research is its potential to transform and put our understanding on a new footing. It has the ability to yield results which represent a significant step forward in our knowledge, generating new paradigms that open the door to new approaches and ways of thinking, new questions and issues, approaches which are not possible in the so-called standard framework of science, i.e. mainstream science rather than frontier science. Also, frontier research tends to involve high costs and faces a high risk of failure.

Life at the frontier is tough
Some frontier research is very popular, such as that driven by the prevailing para­digm. i.e. research whose results can support or refute the paradigm. In other cases, this involves research taking place in highly innovative methodological and conceptual frameworks whose potential is recognised by mainstream research, but which are not sufficiently well established in the scientific community concerned. In this case pioneering research fields can turn into complete fields of knowledge in their own right.

However, there are other areas of frontier research in which the potential to generate knowledge is hard to estimate This is precisely because this research is pursued in an area which is intrinsically difficult to investigate, with little background, atypical approaches, and in many cases with relatively few researchers and experts working on it. The results are often unpredictable. What is more, much of this research is often not well received by the majority’s status quo or may even be completely ignored. The researchers who venture to undertake this research are explorers, blazing trails without knowing where they will end up.

Today’s R&D systems are not conducive to frontier research, precisely because of its intrinsic characteristics. Being high risk, it does not often receive a good score from the committees making research funding decisions, as they need to see preliminary results supporting the research proposal. Moreover, there is often also a shortage of experts or people sufficiently knowledgeable about the proposed research, such that peer review, the defining feature of most of today’s scientific systems, is unable to operate. For the same reasons as underlie its difficulties obtaining funding, frontier research also finds it difficult to gain traction within the scientific community by disseminating its findings through publications or communications. This means that, no matter how stimulating or attract­ive it may be, frontier research tends not to be the path chosen by most scientists and, more worrying still, it tends to be shunned by young scientists, who have the biggest potential for creativity and innovation. This is precisely because of its very high risk of failure and consequent exclusion from the mainstream research community. Current systems of scientific promotion impose severe penalties for failure, thus discouraging risk taking. This compounds the intrinsic difficulty that usually accompanies frontier research, and explains why the intensity of research at the frontier is generally less than in what Kuhn calls normal science.

This approach, or perhaps attitude, however, potentially has very damaging effects on the scientific system in the long term and even in the medium term. Frontier research is the seedbed for the new ideas to draw on when the moment of crisis Kuhn talked about arrives. If we want a genuine knowledge transform­ation we need to encourage frontier research and recognise and foster the spirit of critical enquiry among our young scientists. We need new ideas and methodological and conceptual approaches as well as the excellent technical training that mainstream science can provide. Otherwise we will not be able to respond to the next question or the next unexpected finding that arises, or the next innovative challenge we meet, as this calls on the R&D system having know­ledge that at present we can neither suspect nor imagine. Frontier research has this ability, to bring the future to the present, even though its practitioners themselves may be unable to anticipate it.

Published in No. 05

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  • Lychnos. ISSN: 2171-6463 (Spanish print edition),
    2172-0207 (English print edition), 2174-5102 (online edition)
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