Advancing the Frontiers

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Science  03 Feb 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5761, pp. 577
DOI: 10.1126/science.1125130

There has been much discussion recently about ways to stimulate more “high-risk-high-payoff” research: projects that have the potential to make major leaps in scientific understanding. In the United States, the National Science Board, for example, has had a task force dedicated to this issue for over a year, and the National Institutes of Health's Roadmap includes efforts to transform fundamental and clinical biomedical research.

One approach to advancing these frontiers has proven quite successful over the years. It is the model used by the Gordon Research Conferences (GRCs), which this year celebrate their 75th anniversary; their 2006 program appears in this issue of Science. The GRCs, which began in 1931 as a chemistry meeting conceived and organized by Neil Gordon, now encompass some 180 conferences each year at 17 different sites in the United States and abroad. Over 20,000 international scientists will participate in these intense meetings that span the whole spectrum of science, science education, and science policy. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has had a close association with the GRCs since 1938, when it took over managing the conferences—an arrangement that lasted until 1956, when the GRCs became independent.

A fascinating compendium* of personal reminiscences about the conferences and their scientific impacts, contributed by a diverse group of 80 well-respected scientists, reveals why these conferences are so popular and successful and why they have persisted on a regular basis for so long. Reduced to its core, the success of these meetings amounts to the way in which their format has promoted transformative thinking and project development. Maxine Singer, for example, writes about the importance of the 1973 Nucleic Acids meeting in stimulating thinking about the implications of recombinant DNA (cloning) experiments. Other authors cite the central role of the GRCs in the emergence of such multidisciplinary fields as bioinorganic chemistry, organic electronics, and mammary gland biology.


A core lesson from the GRCs is that even in this age of electronic communication technologies, there is no substitute for putting a small group of people together face to face and keeping them in close contact for a few days. The relatively isolated sites used for the GRCs and the fact that each conference is usually restricted to about 100 attendees encourages people to talk to each other with both informality and candor. And the conference agenda allows for plenty of unstructured discussion time and promotes long conversations about frontier science.

Many of the important unanswered scientific questions are multidisciplinary in character. This feature of contemporary research was amply demonstrated in Science's 2005 list of the top 25 questions for the next 25 years. To promote the kind of thinking needed for problem-based rather than discipline-based science, one needs to bring experts together from all potentially relevant fields and create an environment in which they may speak freely and frankly with one another. That is exactly the kind of conversation that GRC attendees are engaged in. All discussions are off the record, and all conference communications are considered private. This fosters safe spaces for posing “risky” ideas and engaging in creative and occasionally speculative communal thinking. As Norman Hackerman emphasizes in the GRC compendium, “The greatest advantage of these meetings was that attendees were able to participate without worrying about being proved wrong in publication …” On the nonhierarchical nature of the meetings, Roy Vagelos reflects, “There I was [at his first Lipid Metabolism conference], a pipsqueak only a few years out of a postdoctoral fellowship, speaking alongside these giants of biochemistry.” Not surprisingly, some of the giants later became Vagelos' collaborators.

The GRCs are only one way to encourage transformative thinking and research, but their track record suggests that we may need more venues like them. Scientists sometimes lament that peer review may be biased in favor of cautious and “safe” research, unsupportive of departures from mainstream thinking. By creating a relatively unthreatening, unconstrained atmosphere, the GRCs provide a refreshing opportunity to try out new ideas on one's colleagues, brainstorm about difficult and complex issues, and think about possible solutions. Not a bad strategy at all.

  • *Reflections from the Frontiers, Explorations for the Future: Gordon Research Conferences, 1931–2006, A. A. Daemmrich, N. R. Gray, L. Shaper, Eds. (Chemical Heritage Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

  • Science 309, 75 (2005).

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