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Scientific buzzwords obscure meaning

‘Nexus’ is enjoying new-found popularity. But what does it actually mean?

At Nature we like to think we have always been ahead of the curve, so it’s pleasing to see that this journal was using the word ‘nexus’ some 140 years ago. We mentioned in a book review the “organic nexus between the motor and tactile centres” in the brain in November 1876, for example.

In the twenty-first century, the term nexus stands for more than its dictionary definition of a connection or focus point. It’s a buzzword, especially when tagged on to the end of a string of associated nouns.

For example, an article in Environmental Science and Policy this month draws attention to the popularization of the phrase ‘water–energy–food nexus’ in debates over the use of natural resources (R. Cairns and A. Krzywoszynska Environ. Sci. Policy 64, 164–170; 2016).

Language matters and, although Aaron Ellison argues in this week’s World View on page 141 that the term “natural resources” itself should be retired, we’ll skip that to examine Cairns and Krzywoszynska’s main point: buzzwords are Orwellian and obfuscate even as they pretend to enlighten. Discussions of the nexus between connected crises, in other words, can generate more linguistic heat than policy light.

The authors argue that “understandings and usage of the term nexus are plural, fragmented and ambiguous”. This is not always viewed as a negative by those who use the word, of course. When there is little of substance to say, it often helps to use language that acts as a mirror so finely polished that every reader can see their own agenda and interests reflected. There are echoes here of the way the term Anthropocene has been adopted and borrowed by a range of scientific disciplines, each of which wants a taste of the action.

“The term nexus appears to have something of a paradoxical quality,” say Cairns and Krzywoszynska, “being simultaneously unarguably true at a simple descriptive level, and yet confusingly unintelligible or meaningless to actors unfamiliar with the discourse.”

The motives behind the eagerness to jump on the nexus bandwagon are not always sinister. Honest brokers use the term to try to encapsulate that unspoken and undefined territory where the implications of one action bleed into another; when the equal and opposite reaction also has consequences.

But the risk is that containing this territory, however loosely, constrains it instead — and that the nexus becomes the focus of the analysis, rather than a natural consequence of studying the supporting problems.

Perhaps, like the most distant stars, the nexus is best viewed only with peripheral vision: we can see it’s there, but we shouldn’t focus our gaze directly on it lest its true nature slips from view. And, at the very least, it shows that we should choose our buzzwords with care.

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Scientific buzzwords obscure meaning. Nature 538, 140 (2016).

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