boundary science

There is a difference between doing what is (unfortunately, pejoratively) called “routine science” and doing “boundary science.” The former is defined by working within established scientific methods and on existing problems (or, if you like, “problem types”). Routine science is such because junior and senior scholars work within its confines and consider that work to be consistent with their training and the mainstream of the discipline, results are published in academic journals with few questions directed toward the legitimacy of the inquiry qua inquiry, and results worm their way into textbooks and become baseline results for the next wave of inquiry.

Boundary science, on the other hand, involves non-routine methods and questions.* (Sometimes just one or the other and rarely both.) It tends to attract scientists without credentials (“home cooks”) and junior scholars–people who are new to the field and perhaps feel less of the confining pressure that comes with seniority, experience, and the need to establish one’s legacy as a coherent piece of work. Boundary science is rarely published, or published in specialty journals that have lower circulation rates among professionals in the larger field. The concept should make sense if you have some notion of what it means to be “renegade.”

Every field has its share of boundary scientists, and in each field these folks have some sort of love-hate relationship with routine science. While considering it to be, well, rather ordinary, boundary scientists typically yearn for the kind of career stability, routinized production, and legitimacy that routine scientists sometimes take for granted.

And so if it is the case that you are a boundary scientist, discovering that someone in the routine science camp is giving a talk related to your research, it’s a rather bittersweet day. You’ve been delivered a more credible voice for your message, but in the personnage of someone with no blood on the field.

If your little corner of boundary science is about to experience rapid legitimacy (because, clearly, routine scientists have started to take it seriously), you’d like a few things to happen:

  1. That boundary scientists get some of the credit for making initial breakthroughs;
  2. That your results are discussed and taken seriously.
  3. That both (1) and (2) are treated with respect…even humility…by the normal scientist swooping in to introduce the world to these advances.

Instead, you’re more likely to get an email that–while kind and collegial in the main–starts: “The [boundary science] part was just to have a clever title.”**

To be clear: this is not a Malcolm Gladwell style cleverness that largely obfuscates scientific results. Nor is it an attempt to gain status by obscuring the work of boundary scientists (remember: this is someone who is established and has legitimacy within the larger scientific community). Even without any harmful intentions, it does still have harmful effects. It is opportunism premised on the appeal of boundary science, but–as the email clarifies–without any attention paid to the substantive appeal of research on that topic. That is, the title will get asses in seats, but listeners will soon find the speaker really hasn’t done any research on the topic, nor has she read around the boundary science on it.

Perhaps more importantly: The normal scientist isn’t doing anything to ensure that such clever topics will be available to her in the future. Boundary scientists often suffer because these communities are so young (in career terms). When the first wave of renegades tries to publish, there’s no one but normal scientists to review them. (And they’re a conservative bunch.) When the first wave tries to get tenure, there’s no one to write letters except the normal scientists.

I’d just like to see more of an effort within my community to build institutional practices that protect innovation. (Even if we get some some bad science out of it. I work on the “I protect speech I disagree with” principle.)  And “clever titles” don’t do that.

*I will be playing the role of the “boundary scientist” in this scenario. I know it is half too flattering, but I’ve got some convincing evidence.

**Yes, this happened.


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3 responses to “boundary science

  1. Normal science findings often require sufficient knowledge of the norms of the field to be of any interest. It’s boundary science that is more likely to appeal to the far larger possible audience that exists in the wider world.

  2. Jenn Lena

    That’s exactly right, Eric. But it is certainly the case that boundary science includes the normal science of the future (that is, folks working on what will later be seen as “scientific advancements”) and a bunch of folks in tin foil hats trying to contact Martians. A group of professional, normal scientists should be able to tell the difference between the two (except in some very rare circumstances), but routinized review, tenure and promotion practices discourage them from doing so.

  3. Jenn Lena

    I’m using “normal” in the above as a synonym for what I called, in the post, “routine” science.

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