Building Bridges

I like the way that Ahmed Zewail has answered the question of what it takes to get a Nobel Prize in his essay published in Nature. It is worthy of a good read regardless of what role in society you have with respect to research. At the end of the day, we all benefit from research, be that research in the natural sciences, be it in the humanities or the social sciences.

If you have the time, do read Ahmed Zewail’s recommendations about research and discovery. I would like to invite those in legal research to try to translate his recommendations to the field of legal research. Curiosity is what drives research, and it is the quest for new knowledge that drives innovation.


For my part, one of my roles is that of building bridges between research in the natural sciences and legal research, including policy. More exactly the kind of legal research that I interface with has to do with trade and international law. You name it, from technical standards, food security and food safety, the regulations of emerging technologies, common good, climate change, all of these interface at one point or another with trade and international law.

One might however argue that research in the natural sciences is a bit different from legal research. I say that there are commonalities, and there are differences. The commonalities reside in the fact that both operate from concepts (theories) and the differences are in the substance. Methodologies in both fields also show commonalities, and differences. The commonalities reside in logic, and the differences, once again, in the substance being treated. Still, both areas use language, be it narrative, be it mathematical, be it both, we all represent concepts and manipulate them according to some agreed upon rules of analysis which we often call logic. I really think that it is not more complicated than that at this level of abstraction.

In the natural sciences the feedback about the validity of the concept (used in research or academic scholarship) has different consequences from that in the legal (or social) sciences. Let me illustrate this with the famous case of the apple falling to the ground that is claimed to have inspired Newton, and supposedly continues to inspire at least on digital technology enterprise.

Apples fall to the ground. We make meaning out of apple’s act to fall to the ground depending on what concepts we operate to extract meaning out of the observed. A physicist evokes gravity, a chemist evokes chemical bonding, a botanist evokes ripening, a meteorologist may attribute it to the wind, etc. What does the law say about the apple falling to the ground? It depends. The lawyer will ask many questions, and depending on the answers, the legal context may be determined. Man’s law’s are also complex, not just those of nature. On whose property is the apple tree? On whose ground does the apple fall? A good lawyer will keep asking more questions, a not so good lawyer… (will have all the answers). All jokes aside, it is through inquiry and curiosity that the lawyer navigates through discovery and arrives at clarifying the facts and the circumstances necessary to establish the legal aspects of the situation. Policy is down to the ground, it is an applied art that ought to be well informed by the best thinking available. Deep down, all research is applied, even what is termed fundamental research can be considered applied research, however that is one long winded argument that I will develop elsewhere.

So, why is it that the feedback on the validity of the concept used in research in natural science or in legal science has different consequences?

A legal researcher will ask questions about the concepts used in law, in adjudication, and the concepts (theories) used to design such laws, or in applying them. Legal research is only different in one aspect from natural science research. Man’s laws can be rewritten and changed, nature’s law can be re-conceptualized but not changed. You may not like gravity, but you can not change it. Remember that the church lost the battle against the laws of nature a long time ago: the earth is not the center of the universe. That man is not the center of life may be a harder piece to chew, but certainly an interesting hypothesis to consider in an epoch that we call the Anthropocene. How can that be? What if? There are many questions that legal researchers can ask.

Back to the illustrious Ahmed Zewail, do read his essay, and if you are working with me, do think about what this means for your own work.