Research means studying things we don’t yet understand. As Einstein put it, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” So how do you go about studying something you don’t understand? Science’s answer to this is to use a structured approach called the scientific method.
- HYPOTHESIS. We normally start from a “hypothesis”. This is somewhere between an idea and a theory. The hypothesis can come from another experiment that has thrown up some interesting facts or it can come purely from inspiration. For example, suppose I am visiting wildlife park and I notice some flamingos that are standing in a lake on one leg. I wonder if they do this to keep their feet dry and this now become my hypothesis.
- EXPERIMENT. The next step is to design an experiment to test whether the hypothesis is true. We have to design the experiment to take into account all sorts of things that could go wrong, and that is covered on the other pages on this website. Then we have to actually do the experiment.To test our hypothesis that flamingos stand on one leg to try to keep their feet dry, we might predict that if this is the reason for standing on one leg, then when they weren’t in a lake they would put their feet down on the ground. So we could design an experiment to test if flamingos accustomed to standing on one leg put both feet down when they are on dry land.
- INTERPRET RESULTS. Now we have to interpret the results to see if it supports the hypothesis. If it does, we have discovered something. But we also have to be critical of our own results – could anything have gone wrong? In the case of the flamingos, if they still stand on one leg when they are on dry land, we might conclude that the hypothesis was wrong – they are not trying to keep their feet dry after all, they stand on one leg for a different reason. But perhaps we now realise that flamingos spend so much time standing on one leg when they are the lake that they might have become used to it and so continue to do so when they are on dry land. This may be the reason they keep standing on one leg even when they are on dry land, so our experiment may not be telling us anything about their original reason for standing on one leg. We would have to be a little cautious about drawing any firm conclusions and really we should have designed a better experiment.
- REVIEW. The last step is to incorporate our new knowledge into our understanding of the subject we are studying.
Invariably, this throws up new questions, and we start again with a new hypothesis.
Not all science falls into this neat pattern. Sometimes we are just answering the question “I wonder what would happen if….” Sometimes we are addressing a technological challenge which will lead to useful advances along the way. Sending a man to the moon probably fits into this last category. Other experiments are done deliberately just to throw up ideas. Lastly, some science doesn’t involve laboratory based experimentation but instead depends on developing theories, creating computer simulations or from simply observing the world around us.
Science can also be broken down into basic science or applied science. In the former, we are trying to understand the way the world (or Universe!) around us works, whereas in applied science we are trying to achieve a specific objective. Understanding why flamingos stand on one leg is basic science, but trying to find a drug to treat influenza is applied science. The term “translational science” has recently become fashionable, and that refers to science that is done to “translate” the findings of basic research into a real world application.
All of these types of research are important. Without the basic research, we wouldn’t have the necessary knowledge to even start to do the translational or applied science. Although it may sound like translational and applied science are more useful, the basic science is really where the ideas come from in the first place, so we need all three.