Reimagining the Frontier of Science

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


| July 2014



Outer Space

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

Illustration by Fotolia/JohanSwanepoel

“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.