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How Science Works

by PhilipJ on 11 October 2005

I’m not tired tonight, so you’re getting a double dose of posts. This must be a record given the recent lack of posts, so lets enjoy this while it lasts!

In the most recent issue of PLoS Biology (hooray for free access!), Hemai Parthasarathy, PLoS Biology‘s managing editor, has a rather humourous take on the way we actually do science. Her editorial starts out with a description I’m sure everyone wishes were accurate:

Once upon a time, you formulated a hypothesis and designed the experiments to test it. You applied for a grant. You were awarded the money to pursue your line of inquiry. You did the work. You wrote the paper. Your colleagues reviewed your work and found it to be true. You published your paper. The conclusions of the paper joined the cannon of scientific knowledge. The End.

This is quickly followed by the far more realistic account:

This platonic ideal of the scientific method is, sadly, at best science fiction and at worst history of science. The reality, as everyone knows, is much less linear—simultaneously more frustrating and more exciting. Publishing a paper is somewhere within an iterative loop that involves proving your point before you write the grant, working backwards to the rationale from a completely unexpected finding, and ultimately receiving a set of mixed peer reviews, which an editor interprets into a binary decision to publish your paper or not, in one peer-reviewed journal or another.

There are two important things that I think are missing in the “real” account of science. The first is that things break, and seem to do so in such horrible ways. I don’t know a single lab in my department that isn’t having trouble with some arbitrarily expensive peice of equipment. In my lab’s case it is a high-precision 2D stage, in others it is their diode-pumped solid state laser, in another still it is a freezer that lost its power, melting protein samples into a denatured mess. These kinds of problems seem endemic and can have a non-trivial impact on what you can and can not accomplish (especially in the oh-so-short timeframe of a masters degree!).

The second element that I think is missing is that graduate students are the workhorses of any lab, and that we are a… fickle bunch. Our interests change, and often in unforseen ways. This is not entirely different from Hemai’s “completely unexpected findings”, which invariably lead graduate students on month- to year-long deviations from the path we expected to take, but there are differences. We can end up changing projects, or sometimes even switching labs. It is a challenge to choose a project that you can still find stimulating months to years down the road, and I don’t know a single graduate student (first years omitted) that didn’t to some degree get “PhD burnout” with their project and go through serious declines in productivity.

So no, science doesn’t follow the ideal path outlined in the first quote, and I think things are even a little more complicated than presented in the second, but somehow research happens anyway, in that simultaneously frustrating and exciting way.

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