Scientific research is a large and sprawling endeavor, with thousands of laboratories around the world studying their own ultra-specialized piece of a much more significant whole. It’s the logical intersection of reductionist scientific heritage and centuries of technological advances: in order to advance our understanding of the world around us, we must pursue increasingly specific sub-disciplines, from retina neural computation to space plasma physics.
Which is why Thomson Reuters’ scene-scoping study on “100 Key Scientific Research Fronts” is a welcome report for science enthusiasts eager to stay updated on cutting-edge research but lacking the time to read every issue of Science or Nature cover-to-cover.
The report ranks research areas with a special sauce formula that first divides the entirety of scientific research into 8,000 categories that form the “Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators” database. Within each subdivision, a set of core papers is designated by frequent and clustered citations, identifying foundational scientific literature that earned a lot of shout outs in reports of subsequent discoveries. To find today’s hottest research fields, only core papers published between 2007-2012 were considered; the number of citations of those papers and their average publication date were compiled. As the report notes, “a research front with many core papers of recent vintage often indicates a fast-moving or hot specialty.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean these fields are the most important or the most beneficial to society – it just means scientists (and, by extension, groups funding the research) are getting pretty excited about what they’re learning. Here, we take a quick look at the hottest research front in each of ten thematic categories – the sharpest of the cutting edge.
Image: The effects of climate change and ocean acidification on ocean habitats is one of the most active fields of research. (Credit: Flickr/USFWS Pacific)
Impact of Climate Change on Food Crops
Climate change is happening, and while current disruptions may mostly involve higher air conditioning bills, the very basis of the planet’s food supply may ultimately be at risk. Plant scientists are hard at work developing drought-resistant crop strains and determining how biomes will shift. (Image credit: Flickr/Parker Knight)
Tectonic Evolution of the Southern Central Asian Orogenic Belt
The Central Asian Orogenic Belt – a mountainous 5.3 million square kilometer region that includes this region of Uzbekistan – is a twisted amalgamation of re-purposed continental crust, sedimentary rocks, scraped-off seafloor sediments, and igneous rock. Just how it formed, however, is a matter of continued debate, with one team proposing continental collisions and another championing accretion of seafloor sediments during plate subductions. (Image credit: Flickr/vpzone)
Transcatheter Aortic Valve Implantation
In 2002, a French doctor replaced a patient’s heart valve not by surgically opening the chest cavity, but by catheter, requiring only a small incision. This new method has gained popularity in treating cases of faulty aortic valves, and has been approved for use in dozens of countries, including the United States. (Image credit: Flickr/Jeff Kubina)
DNA Methylation Analysis and Missing Heritability
DNA, the dogma goes, is the code of life, determining everything from hair color to our susceptibility to diseases. But many traits passed down from generation to generation are untraceable in the genome – a source of “missing heritability”. What if our environment changed gene expression, not only in our lifetime, but also in our children’s? Some studies are suggesting that this is precisely the case, potentially due to the addition of a CH3 group (methylation) to certain genes. It’s a controversial field, but one that will continue to examine the most essential questions of what our genetic code really means. (Image credit: Flickr/Natmandu)
Ocean Acidification and Marine Ecosystems
Increased quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are generating higher concentrations of carbonic acid in the oceans, lowering the pH and dissolving some organisms’ shells or skeletons. How exactly the enormously complicated oceanic ecosystem – which remains poorly characterized – will respond to the shifting chemical milieu remains an open question. Above, a coral reef in Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. (Image credit: Flickr/USFWS Pacific)
Enhanced Visible Light Photocatalytic Hydrogen Production
Hydrogen fuel cells have been “the next big thing” in energy for years, with proponents trumpeting their potential to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But producing the hydrogen has been a stumbling block. New materials – complex catalysts often involving metals such as cobalt, nickel, iron, or molybdenum – have helped scientists learn more about the molecular mechanisms of water-splitting hydrogen production. With continued progress, futuristic fantasy of sunlight-powered cars may be resuscitated. (Image credit: Flickr/Graeme Smith)
Alkali Doped Iron Selenide Superconductors
Superconductivity allows electrical current transmission with no resistance or loss of signal. Traditionally, this near-magical state could only be attained at extremely low temperatures (as in the photo above, using liquid nitrogen), permitting only limited applications, but researchers have been coaxing the temperature of superconductivity steadily upward. Over the last several years, iron-arsenic compounds have been replaced by iron-selenium devices, generating a lot of buzz in the physics community. (Image credit: Flickr/Camilla Hoel)
The universe is getting bigger, and it’s doing so at ever faster rates. One explanation is “dark energy,” but skeptics consider its invocation mildly unsatisfying; an alternative approach, they propose, is to modify our mathematical treatment of gravity’s effects at large distances. The use of a particular method – the galileon scalar field – allows for self-accelerating solutions, which may ultimately be able to reconcile one of the universe’s biggest mysteries. (Image credit: NASA)
High Energy Rechargeable Lithium Air Batteries
Lithium air batteries strip electrons from lithium and shuttle them to oxygen, using the resulting current to drive electrical devices. The use of air-based oxygen as an electron acceptor means you don’t need to store an oxidizer in the battery, allowing for high energy densities comparable to those of gasoline-powered engines. Above, IBM’s effort to produce a scalable lithium-air battery. (Image credit: IBM)
Urban Policy Mobilities and Global Governance Issues
Every week, more than one million people move from rural regions to cities. This massive shift – a relocation unlike anything in human history – represents a complete reconfiguration of how people interact with the planet. How governments respond, though security, infrastructure, or economic instruments, may well determine if the global urban future will more closely resemble dystopian shanty towns or gleaming metropolises that foster collaboration and increase societal efficiency. Above, a sea of skyscrapers in Shanghai. (Image credit: Flickr/Luther Bailey)