Reimagining the Frontier of Science

Is "the frontier of science" trope harming scientific progress?

Outer Space

The implications of using "the frontier of science" metaphor may be further reaching than you think.

Illustration by Fotolia/JohanSwanepoel

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“The frontier of science” is a metaphor that has become ubiquitous in American rhetoric, from its first appearance in the public address of early twentieth-century American intellectuals and politicians who aligned a mythic national identity with scientific research, to its more recent use in scientists’ arguments in favor of increased research funding. In On the Frontier of Science (Michigan State University Press, 2013), Leah Ceccarelli explores what is selected and what is deflected when this metaphor is deployed, its effects on those who use it, and what rhetorical moves are made by those who try to counter its appeal. The following excerpt comes from the introduction.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan campaigned for reelection by appealing to a mythic vision of America as “a shining city on a hill.” Democratic National Convention keynote speaker Mario Cuomo responded by evoking another powerful American myth.

"The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. “The strong”—“The strong,” they tell us, “will inherit the land.” We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees—wagon train after wagon train—to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and native Americans—all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America."

The mental picture developed by Cuomo here is incongruous: pioneers in a wagon train, typically envisioned as circling in defense against hostile Indians, are imagined to be lifting up those very same “native Americans” to protect them with the rest of the family huddled inside. The mixing of images from different historical eras is strange too, with Roosevelt imagined to be lifting the nation from the Great Depression while wagon trains are traveling across the frontier. Likewise, the phrase “to new frontiers of education, housing, peace” is, on its face, oxymoronic. When schools and homes have been built and a social structure of peaceful security has been achieved, it is only after an old frontier has been conquered; these institutional signs of settled comfort do not align with our understanding of what awaits us on new frontiers. Yet despite the illogic of these images to a critical reader, the message Cuomo conveyed to his immediate audience through this use of the frontier myth was powerful and unambiguous, securing a symbol of American greatness for his party while temporarily denying it to the opposition.

Cuomo’s speech was not unusual in its use of frontier imagery. The symbol of the frontier is pervasive in American culture. Within a five-mile radius of my home, there are eight businesses that lay claim to a frontier ethos: two restaurants (Frontier Room and Frontier Café), a bank (Frontier Bank), a gift shop (Frontier Gallery), a laboratory that specializes in trace metals analysis (Frontier Global Sciences), the regional office of a construction company (Frontier- Kemper Constructors), a surety bond agency (Frontier Bonding Services, Inc.), and a claims adjusters office (Frontier Adjusters of Seattle). Lest you conclude that this surfeit of businesses associating themselves with the frontier is due to my location in the western part of the United States, you should know that a Google Maps search of New York and Chicago produces a similar density and variety of businesses carrying the “frontier” moniker.

The term also appears frequently in the setting of the research university. A search through my university’s web pages turns up several scientists describing their work with a frontier metaphor. For example, there is an article identifying a specific experimental area as a “frontier” of particle physics; an essay titled “Endless Frontier Postponed” claiming that reduced federal funding for basic research in computer science will result in the United States ceding leadership over the “opening” of new areas of scientific discovery; and the promotional material for a lecture in the Global Health Department about why lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights should be seen as “the Final Frontier” that “will liberate us all.” The fact that frontier justice has rarely been liberatory for those in the LGBT community, or that frontier themes like rugged individualism and international competitiveness often operate counter to the goals of scientific knowledge production in disciplines like computer science and particle physics, did little to deter these researchers from selecting frontier language to convey the excitement and opportunity they associate with their favored subjects.

The historian Patricia Nelson Limerick encapsulated the ubiquity of “frontier” language in modern American culture when she pointed to a popular science article titled “Velcro: The Final Frontier.” The sense in which a fabric fastener can be metaphorically compared to a frontier, much less to the “final” frontier, is self-evidently absurd. Yet the meaning of such rhetoric is immediately understood by readers: that “makers, marketers, and users of Velcro stand on the edge of exciting possibilities.” Such diverse and often bizarre uses of the term “frontier” are signs that it acts as “virtually the flypaper of our mental world; it attaches itself to everything” in American public discourse despite the fact that the frontier myth is “jammed with nationalistic self-congratulation and toxic ethnocentrism.”

On the Frontier of Science examines the unconsidered entailments of this mythic appeal in the metaphoric construction the “frontier of science,” particularly as this metaphor is used in the contemporary public address of American scientists. As the rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke put it, the terms we choose when we communicate “necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen” or filter on our perceptions, with each such “terministic screen” having its own way of directing our attention and shaping our thinking. By examining the historical development of this terministic screen, as well as some recent uses of it, I set out to answer three questions: What is selected and what is deflected by this metaphor? What effects might these selections and deflections have on the scientific research projects of those who use the metaphor? What moves do rhetors make when they try to escape the flypaper trap of this metaphor?

With respect to the first question, my research into the history of the metaphor as well as some recent uses of it by American scientists suggests that when the terministic screen of the frontier shapes our understanding of science in America, it narrows our perception of who is qualified to undertake scientific research (ruggedly individualistic men), the motives that guide scientists (progressive), the means and proper actions they take to achieve their goals (competitive and exploitative), and the setting in which they work (unclaimed territory). These findings align with the work of the historian Richard Slotkin, whose study of the frontier myth demonstrates that this “venerable tradition in American political rhetoric” also serves as a “vein of latent ideological power,” in which separation and conflict are envisioned as necessary precursors to progress.

Scientists interpellated through this metaphoric filter are asked to see themselves as risk-taking, adventurous loners, separated from a public that both envies and distrusts them, but that nonetheless comes to rely on the profitable discoveries they bring back from the frontier of research. This frontier metaphor constitutes American scientists as stereotypically male, with a manifest destiny to penetrate the unknown, and a competitive desire to claim the riches of new territory before others can do the same. The negative consequences of this image of the scientist are particularly striking in an era when there are more women than men in the recruiting pool for scientific careers, and when the most pressing research questions facing scientists require the ability to work cooperatively with others on problems of global significance.

The second question taken up in On the Frontier of Science follows from this recognition of a rift between the metaphor and the needs of contemporary science. As the rhetorical critic Tarla Rai Peterson once put it, the goals legitimized by the frontier metaphor “are not always congruent with the goals of those ensnared in its web.” This is especially true when rhetoric designed for one audience is overheard by another, or when some audience members begin to develop a more ambivalent relationship to a myth that they had previously embraced. Limerick affirms that while “clear and predictable on most occasions, the idea of the frontier is still capable of sudden twists and shifts of meaning, meanings considerably more interesting than the conventional” connotations it engenders. On the Frontier of Science exposes some of those twists and shifts of meaning, particularly as the term is used by American scientists and received by publics with different sensitivities to those meanings. A close look at the public rhetoric of two biologists, Edward O. Wilson and Francis Collins, demonstrates that under the influence of this terministic screen, the frontiersman’s erasure of land ownership rights for the native inhabitants of “wilderness” territory is carried over to the scientist’s erasure of indigenous rights to biological products. By looking at audience reception to this public rhetoric, we come to see that resistance to the research projects being promoted by these scientists was amplified by the decision to frame those projects through a frontier metaphor. When a commonplace so familiar that it is used without reflection encounters unintended audiences, or purposes that conflict with its connotations, or ambiguities of public memory, the resulting rhetorical product can be strange, illogical, and counterproductive. Identifying these incongruities can help us to better understand individual texts and their influence, and perhaps help scientists begin to loosen the grip of this ubiquitous metaphor over their rhetorical imagination.

The third question raised by On the Frontier of Science follows from the implication that it is desirable for rhetors to escape the pull of the frontier of science metaphor by removing it from their rhetorical toolkits, or at least using it more mindfully. One of the public arguments by Collins attempts to do just that, acknowledging some of the troubling implications of the metaphor when viewed from the perspective of those who were pushed aside by the Euro-American conquest of frontier territory. But a critical examination of that text in its context shows that it is a superficial move that misses the point of its own denunciation. Another, different sort of escape from the pull of the frontier of science metaphor is attempted in President George W. Bush’s first speech on stem cell research. Bucking a long tradition of American presidential rhetoric that praises scientists for their pioneering spirit of opening new frontiers of knowledge, Bush reframed the boundary that separates civilization from the unknown, reconstituting it as a line that should not be crossed. In the short term, his rhetorical reconstruction of territory across the frontier as a deadly and dystopian space was successful at subverting the appeal of an American pioneering spirit that always presses forward toward new biological futures. But in the long term, this reframing failed, as his opponents successfully invoked the frontier myth to identify his attitude toward science as incompatible with the American way. The ultimate failure of both progressive and conservative attempts to counter the influence of the frontier of science metaphor tells us much about the ongoing power and reach of this cultural trope. Coming to recognize how hard it is to escape its appeal is a first step toward developing a more sophisticated relationship to it.

In answering these three questions about the frontier of science metaphor, On the Frontier of Science demonstrates the pathological entailments, effects, and attempted evasions of a powerful American commonplace. Research that is characterized as being on the frontier of science imagines science in a way that neglects some of the qualities that are most important to the production of successful scientific research today, like collaboration across national borders, respect for nonscientific publics, and a professional culture capable of recruiting the best minds regardless of gender. American scientists are using the frontier myth unreflectively, developing appeals that seem perfectly reasonable to them and to some of their audiences, but that undermine their goals with other audiences who interpret and evaluate those appeals in transnational contexts. The solution to these problems is not a simple affair; explicit denouncements of the metaphor have little impact on the worldview it endorses, and attempts at reframing can be short-lived. To demonstrate these points, On the Frontier of Science narrates a rhetorical history of the frontier of science metaphor and scrutinizes the appearance of this trope in the contemporary public address of American scientists and politicians talking about science. Such criticism will help readers develop a better understanding of how the frontier metaphor dogs American science, and how such rhetoric might be better managed in the future.

Excerpted with permission from On the Frontier of Science: An American Rhetoric of Exploration and Exploitation by Leah Ceccarelli and published by Michigan State University, 2013.