Frontier research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (2023)

The coordination unit of the CSIC’s Humanities and Social Sciences Area was at one time thinking of asking its groups of researchers a simple question, similar to that asked in other areas of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), to identify the five or six topics they felt represented the biggest advances in our knowledge over the last 15 or 20 years. We could have asked the same question about the top five or six authors or books. The difficulty was not the lack of ideas, but the need to choose some lines of research instead of others; an exercise whose result was perhaps HIGHLIGHTSProfile: Javier Moscosomore the consternation of the researchers involved than the admiration of their peers. However, it is no secret to the area’s researchers that methodological changes are afoot, with shifts away from old ways of looking at topics, and new issues and approaches emerging, either as a result of demand from society or pressure from within. The so-called “linguistic turn”, “visual turn” or “affective turn” are prime examples of methodological changes that are sometimes backed by entire research groups, and whose effect have made themselves felt far beyond the limited geographic and disciplinary boundaries in which they were first conceived.

By its very nature, the Fundación General CSIC’s question in this journal, as to the meaning of so-called “frontier research” in the Humanities and Social Sciences, brings with it a similar difficulty to that faced by the CSIC’s coordinators when they asked their researchers to select a limit­­ed number of key topics. First of all, it calls for clarification at the outset of what is meant by the term “frontier research.” This is a term which wavers between two or three meanings that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For many scientists, “frontier” research is that which takes place at the limits of knowledge, and which questions either the existing methodology or stock of knowledge, for example, by formulating speculative hypotheses whose even partial corrob­oration would be something of a surprise, given their prima facie improbability. From this point of view, Frontier research resembles the search for improbable hypotheses, as the opposite –the trivial confirmation of established ideas– would never It is clear that not all excellent science is “frontier” science, but neither is all “frontier” research necessarily good sciencelead to any spectacular discoveries. For many other scientists, however, the word “frontier” does not necessarily refer to what is at the limit of the probable on the basis of our prior knowledge, but research which moves at the bound­aries of the disciplinary frameworks, their theoretical structures and their departments and social institutions. The forms of speci­ation of scientific knowledge, the historical rise of numerous disciplines, is due in part to these inter-territorial pairings, where some sciences (together with the scientists practising them, the laboratories in which they are pursued, and the budgets paying for them) can draw upon others, incorporate other scientists’ work or use their results for their own benefit. Last, but not least, for many scientific policymakers, frontier research is synonymous with quality research; that is to say, synonymous with scientific excellence. Serious misunderstandings sometimes arise when it is understood in this latter sense, as it often happens that the way in which excellent is measured (for example, in terms of impact factors) is confused with the purpose or social relevance of research (for example, in terms of transfer mechanisms) and is understood in a monolithic and inappropriately dimensioned way, such as when the only type of transfer possible is considered to be technology transfer and is expressed as the number of patents.

In the case of the humanities and social sciences, research may be “frontier” in all three senses described, although it needs to be made clear from the outset that not all excellent science is “frontier” nor is all “frontier” research, for this reason alone, necessarily good science. Although it is often the case that the best science is at the frontier, it would be to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent to conclude that working at the frontier of science is a sufficient condition for science to be excellent. In a spectrum as wide (and artificial) as the body of knowledge and practices that fall under the generic heading of the humanities and social sciences –which range from experimental sciences (like psychology, archaeology or linguistics), to quantitative sciences (such as sociology, demography or geography), and those with more qualitative methodologies (such as history, literary theory or art)– movements also take place, of course, that are associated with the appearance of new objects of study, with the introduction of new research techniques or the adoption of new epistemic values. At the same time, some of these lines of “frontier” research are also at the frontier because they involve collaboration between different disciplines and fields. It is not unusual, for example, to find research groups bringing together people with different academic backgrounds collab­orating on solving common problems. On some occasions, these groups take on more institutionalised forms, such as inter-university departments or even, such as the case of the CSIC’s recently created Institute of Heritage Sciences (Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio, INCIPIT) in Santiago Compostela, lead to research centres. Even when researchers from other areas of research that many people consider “more scientific” –such as organic chemistry, mathematics, physics or computation– participate in some of these synergies between disciplinary niches, the research is not “more” or “less” frontier-oriented because it is associated with methodologies or epistemic values intrinsic to the experimental sciences. Conversely, research on global change, which includes experts in archaeobotany or prehistory on its teams is not better or worse for this fact. The quality of research is always determined by the quality and impact of its results. At this point it is worth dispelling the widely held fallacy that, because the evaluation criteria for research in the humanities and social sciences are apparently less rigid or less objective than in other fields of knowledge, their contribution to quality research will be more questionable. As we shall see, nothing could be further from the truth.

Frontier research in the Humanities and Social Sciences
In 2005 and 2006, the Direct­orate General for Research at the Ministry of Education and Science (MEC) carried out a study to compare the results of evaluations of the projects included in the National Research Plan conducted by the National Evaluation and Foresight Agency, ANEP (Agencia Nacional de Evaluación y Prospectiva), with those As the philosopher Martha Nusbaum has pointed out, it is only totalitarian regimes that shun research in the humanities. By contrast, critical research in these areas, and their institutional health, are a measure of the strength of the democracy in the countries in which it is pursuedof the ministry’s own panels of experts. Contrary to what might have been expected, the degree of agreement between both groups of evaluators, who moreover used different methodologies from among the set of internationally accepted procedures, exceeded all expectations and threw up a very interesting conclusion: no mechanical evaluation tool can substitute for the work of evaluators who, often before seeing the impact factors or other bibliometric measures, already know what good research looks like; a fact borne out by the history of science.

What philosophers call the “myth of mechanical object­ivity” has made itself felt in research in the humanities and social sciences, and has also affected the form and content of its interdisciplinary research. On the one hand, there is the widespread prejudice that the most appropriate form of research in this area relies on cooperating with other sciences applying quantitative or experimental methodologies (which is absolutely false, as there is also experi­mental research in various fields of the human sciences, as fields archaeology, linguistics or psychology attest). On the other hand, there is a growing suspicion that, in view of the absence of quantitative procedures and methods –which is also utterly untrue– no claims can perhaps be made for this field’s interdisciplinary research or its mobilisation of “improbable” hypotheses. These two conclusions are not just incorrect, but are the embodiment of a more widespread preconception about the role of the humanities and social sciences in the context of national research policies. As in other similar cases, this prejudice also permeates society, where it feeds on an ignor­ance of the history and philosophy of science, which is to say a lack of the very knowledge that certain branches of the humanities can and do provide.

Once aboard the train of progress, some people are only interested in how much effort the journey will need or the laws of motion affecting the train, without stopping to think of the direction, number and origin of the passengers, or the destin­ation. As the philosopher Martha Nusbaum has pointed out, it is only totalitarian regimes that shun research in the humanities. By contrast, critical research in these areas, and their institutional health, are a measure of the strength of the democracy in the countries in which it takes place. However, it does not take a renowned political philosopher to reach a conclusion which can be drawn simply by reading a newspaper carefully. Here, as elsewhere, the paradox of ignorance is that the practitioner is determined to ignore precisely what could be the remedy and cure.

Quality research
Over the last ten or fifteen years, the humanities and social sciences have pos­itioned themselves around new research topics, which have inevitably led them to develop new forms of interdisciplinary cooperation. In some instances, such as the case of the CSIC’s new Centre for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Madrid (Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales, CCHS), these shifts have received institutional backing. For the sponsors of this project, which has brought together Over the last ten or fifteen years, the humanities and social sciences have positioned themselves around new research topics, which inevitably have led them to develop new forms of interdisciplinary cooperationseven different research institutes, mostly from the humanities, the centre, which opened two years ago, represents a commitment to the future based on quality research, set in a European context, taking a cooperative approach to achieving its ambitious goals. The atom­isation and fragmentation of research groups, in conjunction with meagre and uneven funding, has always been one of the biggest obstacles to Spanish science. This new centre offers the most recent counterexample, but by no means the only one. With over 20 research lines, many of its teams clearly work at the frontiers of knowledge, with high levels of internationalisation and tangible results in terms of the whole range of indicators of excellence: whether measured by the impact of their publications, sources and amounts of funding or transfer of their results. In some cases, their research focuses on problems with a considerable social impact and growing political interest, such as ageing or global change. Others take place in cooperation with similar institutions, such as Programa Convivencia a joint initiative by the CSIC and the Max Planck Society studying the history of forms of cultural integration in the late Middle Ages. In other cases, such as studies of archaeology and social processes, the research teams include researchers from history, along with others from philology or art, and their results add their enormous social impact to their scientific excellence.

At the CCHS, as in many other universities and research centres in Spain and abroad, frontier research in the humanities and social sciences is associated with new objects of study, such as the growing interest in cognitive processes, which normally include collaborations between psychologists, linguists and philosophers of mind. By its very nature, “frontier” research in any of the senses described, cannot guarantee a positive return from every investment, although it is the best guarantee of success overallThere is also an increasing focus on studies of the emotions, which mobilise cultural historians, theoreticians of art, experts in visual culture, sociologists and anthropologists.

By its very nature, “frontier” research in any of the senses described, cannot guarantee a positive return from every investment, although it is the best guarantee of success overall. This means that, contrary to what happens in more conservative forms of research, where the results are predictable and even inconsequential, frontier research must accept partial failure as an essential part of its day-to-day work. In this regard, the pressure on research groups in Spain and abroad to do quality science that has ambitious objectives and eschews predictable results is not being backed up with commensurate resources from government to promote knowledge and science. Nevertheless, the history of science has shown over and over again that public or private investment in research is only recouped in the medium to long term, and that the path is a winding one, punctuated with failed attempts. In the long term, the pursuit of quick returns from research has, historically, led only to intellectual stagnation and economic paralysis.

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