What Is Research, and Why Do People Do It?

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a scientific research is

  • James Hiebert 6 ,
  • Jinfa Cai 7 ,
  • Stephen Hwang 7 ,
  • Anne K Morris 6 &
  • Charles Hohensee 6  

Part of the book series: Research in Mathematics Education ((RME))

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Abstractspiepr Abs1

Every day people do research as they gather information to learn about something of interest. In the scientific world, however, research means something different than simply gathering information. Scientific research is characterized by its careful planning and observing, by its relentless efforts to understand and explain, and by its commitment to learn from everyone else seriously engaged in research. We call this kind of research scientific inquiry and define it as “formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses.” By “hypotheses” we do not mean the hypotheses you encounter in statistics courses. We mean predictions about what you expect to find and rationales for why you made these predictions. Throughout this and the remaining chapters we make clear that the process of scientific inquiry applies to all kinds of research studies and data, both qualitative and quantitative.

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Part I. What Is Research?

Have you ever studied something carefully because you wanted to know more about it? Maybe you wanted to know more about your grandmother’s life when she was younger so you asked her to tell you stories from her childhood, or maybe you wanted to know more about a fertilizer you were about to use in your garden so you read the ingredients on the package and looked them up online. According to the dictionary definition, you were doing research.

Recall your high school assignments asking you to “research” a topic. The assignment likely included consulting a variety of sources that discussed the topic, perhaps including some “original” sources. Often, the teacher referred to your product as a “research paper.”

Were you conducting research when you interviewed your grandmother or wrote high school papers reviewing a particular topic? Our view is that you were engaged in part of the research process, but only a small part. In this book, we reserve the word “research” for what it means in the scientific world, that is, for scientific research or, more pointedly, for scientific inquiry .

Exercise 1.1

Before you read any further, write a definition of what you think scientific inquiry is. Keep it short—Two to three sentences. You will periodically update this definition as you read this chapter and the remainder of the book.

This book is about scientific inquiry—what it is and how to do it. For starters, scientific inquiry is a process, a particular way of finding out about something that involves a number of phases. Each phase of the process constitutes one aspect of scientific inquiry. You are doing scientific inquiry as you engage in each phase, but you have not done scientific inquiry until you complete the full process. Each phase is necessary but not sufficient.

In this chapter, we set the stage by defining scientific inquiry—describing what it is and what it is not—and by discussing what it is good for and why people do it. The remaining chapters build directly on the ideas presented in this chapter.

A first thing to know is that scientific inquiry is not all or nothing. “Scientificness” is a continuum. Inquiries can be more scientific or less scientific. What makes an inquiry more scientific? You might be surprised there is no universally agreed upon answer to this question. None of the descriptors we know of are sufficient by themselves to define scientific inquiry. But all of them give you a way of thinking about some aspects of the process of scientific inquiry. Each one gives you different insights.

An image of the book's description with the words like research, science, and inquiry and what the word research meant in the scientific world.

Exercise 1.2

As you read about each descriptor below, think about what would make an inquiry more or less scientific. If you think a descriptor is important, use it to revise your definition of scientific inquiry.

Creating an Image of Scientific Inquiry

We will present three descriptors of scientific inquiry. Each provides a different perspective and emphasizes a different aspect of scientific inquiry. We will draw on all three descriptors to compose our definition of scientific inquiry.

Descriptor 1. Experience Carefully Planned in Advance

Sir Ronald Fisher, often called the father of modern statistical design, once referred to research as “experience carefully planned in advance” (1935, p. 8). He said that humans are always learning from experience, from interacting with the world around them. Usually, this learning is haphazard rather than the result of a deliberate process carried out over an extended period of time. Research, Fisher said, was learning from experience, but experience carefully planned in advance.

This phrase can be fully appreciated by looking at each word. The fact that scientific inquiry is based on experience means that it is based on interacting with the world. These interactions could be thought of as the stuff of scientific inquiry. In addition, it is not just any experience that counts. The experience must be carefully planned . The interactions with the world must be conducted with an explicit, describable purpose, and steps must be taken to make the intended learning as likely as possible. This planning is an integral part of scientific inquiry; it is not just a preparation phase. It is one of the things that distinguishes scientific inquiry from many everyday learning experiences. Finally, these steps must be taken beforehand and the purpose of the inquiry must be articulated in advance of the experience. Clearly, scientific inquiry does not happen by accident, by just stumbling into something. Stumbling into something unexpected and interesting can happen while engaged in scientific inquiry, but learning does not depend on it and serendipity does not make the inquiry scientific.

Descriptor 2. Observing Something and Trying to Explain Why It Is the Way It Is

When we were writing this chapter and googled “scientific inquiry,” the first entry was: “Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.” The emphasis is on studying, or observing, and then explaining . This descriptor takes the image of scientific inquiry beyond carefully planned experience and includes explaining what was experienced.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “explain” means “(a) to make known, (b) to make plain or understandable, (c) to give the reason or cause of, and (d) to show the logical development or relations of” (Merriam-Webster, n.d. ). We will use all these definitions. Taken together, they suggest that to explain an observation means to understand it by finding reasons (or causes) for why it is as it is. In this sense of scientific inquiry, the following are synonyms: explaining why, understanding why, and reasoning about causes and effects. Our image of scientific inquiry now includes planning, observing, and explaining why.

An image represents the observation required in the scientific inquiry including planning and explaining.

We need to add a final note about this descriptor. We have phrased it in a way that suggests “observing something” means you are observing something in real time—observing the way things are or the way things are changing. This is often true. But, observing could mean observing data that already have been collected, maybe by someone else making the original observations (e.g., secondary analysis of NAEP data or analysis of existing video recordings of classroom instruction). We will address secondary analyses more fully in Chap. 4 . For now, what is important is that the process requires explaining why the data look like they do.

We must note that for us, the term “data” is not limited to numerical or quantitative data such as test scores. Data can also take many nonquantitative forms, including written survey responses, interview transcripts, journal entries, video recordings of students, teachers, and classrooms, text messages, and so forth.

An image represents the data explanation as it is not limited and takes numerous non-quantitative forms including an interview, journal entries, etc.

Exercise 1.3

What are the implications of the statement that just “observing” is not enough to count as scientific inquiry? Does this mean that a detailed description of a phenomenon is not scientific inquiry?

Find sources that define research in education that differ with our position, that say description alone, without explanation, counts as scientific research. Identify the precise points where the opinions differ. What are the best arguments for each of the positions? Which do you prefer? Why?

Descriptor 3. Updating Everyone’s Thinking in Response to More and Better Information

This descriptor focuses on a third aspect of scientific inquiry: updating and advancing the field’s understanding of phenomena that are investigated. This descriptor foregrounds a powerful characteristic of scientific inquiry: the reliability (or trustworthiness) of what is learned and the ultimate inevitability of this learning to advance human understanding of phenomena. Humans might choose not to learn from scientific inquiry, but history suggests that scientific inquiry always has the potential to advance understanding and that, eventually, humans take advantage of these new understandings.

Before exploring these bold claims a bit further, note that this descriptor uses “information” in the same way the previous two descriptors used “experience” and “observations.” These are the stuff of scientific inquiry and we will use them often, sometimes interchangeably. Frequently, we will use the term “data” to stand for all these terms.

An overriding goal of scientific inquiry is for everyone to learn from what one scientist does. Much of this book is about the methods you need to use so others have faith in what you report and can learn the same things you learned. This aspect of scientific inquiry has many implications.

One implication is that scientific inquiry is not a private practice. It is a public practice available for others to see and learn from. Notice how different this is from everyday learning. When you happen to learn something from your everyday experience, often only you gain from the experience. The fact that research is a public practice means it is also a social one. It is best conducted by interacting with others along the way: soliciting feedback at each phase, taking opportunities to present work-in-progress, and benefitting from the advice of others.

A second implication is that you, as the researcher, must be committed to sharing what you are doing and what you are learning in an open and transparent way. This allows all phases of your work to be scrutinized and critiqued. This is what gives your work credibility. The reliability or trustworthiness of your findings depends on your colleagues recognizing that you have used all appropriate methods to maximize the chances that your claims are justified by the data.

A third implication of viewing scientific inquiry as a collective enterprise is the reverse of the second—you must be committed to receiving comments from others. You must treat your colleagues as fair and honest critics even though it might sometimes feel otherwise. You must appreciate their job, which is to remain skeptical while scrutinizing what you have done in considerable detail. To provide the best help to you, they must remain skeptical about your conclusions (when, for example, the data are difficult for them to interpret) until you offer a convincing logical argument based on the information you share. A rather harsh but good-to-remember statement of the role of your friendly critics was voiced by Karl Popper, a well-known twentieth century philosopher of science: “. . . if you are interested in the problem which I tried to solve by my tentative assertion, you may help me by criticizing it as severely as you can” (Popper, 1968, p. 27).

A final implication of this third descriptor is that, as someone engaged in scientific inquiry, you have no choice but to update your thinking when the data support a different conclusion. This applies to your own data as well as to those of others. When data clearly point to a specific claim, even one that is quite different than you expected, you must reconsider your position. If the outcome is replicated multiple times, you need to adjust your thinking accordingly. Scientific inquiry does not let you pick and choose which data to believe; it mandates that everyone update their thinking when the data warrant an update.

Doing Scientific Inquiry

We define scientific inquiry in an operational sense—what does it mean to do scientific inquiry? What kind of process would satisfy all three descriptors: carefully planning an experience in advance; observing and trying to explain what you see; and, contributing to updating everyone’s thinking about an important phenomenon?

We define scientific inquiry as formulating , testing , and revising hypotheses about phenomena of interest.

Of course, we are not the only ones who define it in this way. The definition for the scientific method posted by the editors of Britannica is: “a researcher develops a hypothesis, tests it through various means, and then modifies the hypothesis on the basis of the outcome of the tests and experiments” (Britannica, n.d. ).

An image represents the scientific inquiry definition given by the editors of Britannica and also defines the hypothesis on the basis of the experiments.

Notice how defining scientific inquiry this way satisfies each of the descriptors. “Carefully planning an experience in advance” is exactly what happens when formulating a hypothesis about a phenomenon of interest and thinking about how to test it. “ Observing a phenomenon” occurs when testing a hypothesis, and “ explaining ” what is found is required when revising a hypothesis based on the data. Finally, “updating everyone’s thinking” comes from comparing publicly the original with the revised hypothesis.

Doing scientific inquiry, as we have defined it, underscores the value of accumulating knowledge rather than generating random bits of knowledge. Formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses is an ongoing process, with each revised hypothesis begging for another test, whether by the same researcher or by new researchers. The editors of Britannica signaled this cyclic process by adding the following phrase to their definition of the scientific method: “The modified hypothesis is then retested, further modified, and tested again.” Scientific inquiry creates a process that encourages each study to build on the studies that have gone before. Through collective engagement in this process of building study on top of study, the scientific community works together to update its thinking.

Before exploring more fully the meaning of “formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses,” we need to acknowledge that this is not the only way researchers define research. Some researchers prefer a less formal definition, one that includes more serendipity, less planning, less explanation. You might have come across more open definitions such as “research is finding out about something.” We prefer the tighter hypothesis formulation, testing, and revision definition because we believe it provides a single, coherent map for conducting research that addresses many of the thorny problems educational researchers encounter. We believe it is the most useful orientation toward research and the most helpful to learn as a beginning researcher.

A final clarification of our definition is that it applies equally to qualitative and quantitative research. This is a familiar distinction in education that has generated much discussion. You might think our definition favors quantitative methods over qualitative methods because the language of hypothesis formulation and testing is often associated with quantitative methods. In fact, we do not favor one method over another. In Chap. 4 , we will illustrate how our definition fits research using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods.

Exercise 1.4

Look for ways to extend what the field knows in an area that has already received attention by other researchers. Specifically, you can search for a program of research carried out by more experienced researchers that has some revised hypotheses that remain untested. Identify a revised hypothesis that you might like to test.

Unpacking the Terms Formulating, Testing, and Revising Hypotheses

To get a full sense of the definition of scientific inquiry we will use throughout this book, it is helpful to spend a little time with each of the key terms.

We first want to make clear that we use the term “hypothesis” as it is defined in most dictionaries and as it used in many scientific fields rather than as it is usually defined in educational statistics courses. By “hypothesis,” we do not mean a null hypothesis that is accepted or rejected by statistical analysis. Rather, we use “hypothesis” in the sense conveyed by the following definitions: “An idea or explanation for something that is based on known facts but has not yet been proved” (Cambridge University Press, n.d. ), and “An unproved theory, proposition, or supposition, tentatively accepted to explain certain facts and to provide a basis for further investigation or argument” (Agnes & Guralnik, 2008 ).

We distinguish two parts to “hypotheses.” Hypotheses consist of predictions and rationales . Predictions are statements about what you expect to find when you inquire about something. Rationales are explanations for why you made the predictions you did, why you believe your predictions are correct. So, for us “formulating hypotheses” means making explicit predictions and developing rationales for the predictions.

“Testing hypotheses” means making observations that allow you to assess in what ways your predictions were correct and in what ways they were incorrect. In education research, it is rarely useful to think of your predictions as either right or wrong. Because of the complexity of most issues you will investigate, most predictions will be right in some ways and wrong in others.

By studying the observations you make (data you collect) to test your hypotheses, you can revise your hypotheses to better align with the observations. This means revising your predictions plus revising your rationales to justify your adjusted predictions. Even though you might not run another test, formulating revised hypotheses is an essential part of conducting a research study. Comparing your original and revised hypotheses informs everyone of what you learned by conducting your study. In addition, a revised hypothesis sets the stage for you or someone else to extend your study and accumulate more knowledge of the phenomenon.

We should note that not everyone makes a clear distinction between predictions and rationales as two aspects of hypotheses. In fact, common, non-scientific uses of the word “hypothesis” may limit it to only a prediction or only an explanation (or rationale). We choose to explicitly include both prediction and rationale in our definition of hypothesis, not because we assert this should be the universal definition, but because we want to foreground the importance of both parts acting in concert. Using “hypothesis” to represent both prediction and rationale could hide the two aspects, but we make them explicit because they provide different kinds of information. It is usually easier to make predictions than develop rationales because predictions can be guesses, hunches, or gut feelings about which you have little confidence. Developing a compelling rationale requires careful thought plus reading what other researchers have found plus talking with your colleagues. Often, while you are developing your rationale you will find good reasons to change your predictions. Developing good rationales is the engine that drives scientific inquiry. Rationales are essentially descriptions of how much you know about the phenomenon you are studying. Throughout this guide, we will elaborate on how developing good rationales drives scientific inquiry. For now, we simply note that it can sharpen your predictions and help you to interpret your data as you test your hypotheses.

An image represents the rationale and the prediction for the scientific inquiry and different types of information provided by the terms.

Hypotheses in education research take a variety of forms or types. This is because there are a variety of phenomena that can be investigated. Investigating educational phenomena is sometimes best done using qualitative methods, sometimes using quantitative methods, and most often using mixed methods (e.g., Hay, 2016 ; Weis et al. 2019a ; Weisner, 2005 ). This means that, given our definition, hypotheses are equally applicable to qualitative and quantitative investigations.

Hypotheses take different forms when they are used to investigate different kinds of phenomena. Two very different activities in education could be labeled conducting experiments and descriptions. In an experiment, a hypothesis makes a prediction about anticipated changes, say the changes that occur when a treatment or intervention is applied. You might investigate how students’ thinking changes during a particular kind of instruction.

A second type of hypothesis, relevant for descriptive research, makes a prediction about what you will find when you investigate and describe the nature of a situation. The goal is to understand a situation as it exists rather than to understand a change from one situation to another. In this case, your prediction is what you expect to observe. Your rationale is the set of reasons for making this prediction; it is your current explanation for why the situation will look like it does.

You will probably read, if you have not already, that some researchers say you do not need a prediction to conduct a descriptive study. We will discuss this point of view in Chap. 2 . For now, we simply claim that scientific inquiry, as we have defined it, applies to all kinds of research studies. Descriptive studies, like others, not only benefit from formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses, but also need hypothesis formulating, testing, and revising.

One reason we define research as formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses is that if you think of research in this way you are less likely to go wrong. It is a useful guide for the entire process, as we will describe in detail in the chapters ahead. For example, as you build the rationale for your predictions, you are constructing the theoretical framework for your study (Chap. 3 ). As you work out the methods you will use to test your hypothesis, every decision you make will be based on asking, “Will this help me formulate or test or revise my hypothesis?” (Chap. 4 ). As you interpret the results of testing your predictions, you will compare them to what you predicted and examine the differences, focusing on how you must revise your hypotheses (Chap. 5 ). By anchoring the process to formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses, you will make smart decisions that yield a coherent and well-designed study.

Exercise 1.5

Compare the concept of formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses with the descriptions of scientific inquiry contained in Scientific Research in Education (NRC, 2002 ). How are they similar or different?

Exercise 1.6

Provide an example to illustrate and emphasize the differences between everyday learning/thinking and scientific inquiry.

Learning from Doing Scientific Inquiry

We noted earlier that a measure of what you have learned by conducting a research study is found in the differences between your original hypothesis and your revised hypothesis based on the data you collected to test your hypothesis. We will elaborate this statement in later chapters, but we preview our argument here.

Even before collecting data, scientific inquiry requires cycles of making a prediction, developing a rationale, refining your predictions, reading and studying more to strengthen your rationale, refining your predictions again, and so forth. And, even if you have run through several such cycles, you still will likely find that when you test your prediction you will be partly right and partly wrong. The results will support some parts of your predictions but not others, or the results will “kind of” support your predictions. A critical part of scientific inquiry is making sense of your results by interpreting them against your predictions. Carefully describing what aspects of your data supported your predictions, what aspects did not, and what data fell outside of any predictions is not an easy task, but you cannot learn from your study without doing this analysis.

An image represents the cycle of events that take place before making predictions, developing the rationale, and studying the prediction and rationale multiple times.

Analyzing the matches and mismatches between your predictions and your data allows you to formulate different rationales that would have accounted for more of the data. The best revised rationale is the one that accounts for the most data. Once you have revised your rationales, you can think about the predictions they best justify or explain. It is by comparing your original rationales to your new rationales that you can sort out what you learned from your study.

Suppose your study was an experiment. Maybe you were investigating the effects of a new instructional intervention on students’ learning. Your original rationale was your explanation for why the intervention would change the learning outcomes in a particular way. Your revised rationale explained why the changes that you observed occurred like they did and why your revised predictions are better. Maybe your original rationale focused on the potential of the activities if they were implemented in ideal ways and your revised rationale included the factors that are likely to affect how teachers implement them. By comparing the before and after rationales, you are describing what you learned—what you can explain now that you could not before. Another way of saying this is that you are describing how much more you understand now than before you conducted your study.

Revised predictions based on carefully planned and collected data usually exhibit some of the following features compared with the originals: more precision, more completeness, and broader scope. Revised rationales have more explanatory power and become more complete, more aligned with the new predictions, sharper, and overall more convincing.

Part II. Why Do Educators Do Research?

Doing scientific inquiry is a lot of work. Each phase of the process takes time, and you will often cycle back to improve earlier phases as you engage in later phases. Because of the significant effort required, you should make sure your study is worth it. So, from the beginning, you should think about the purpose of your study. Why do you want to do it? And, because research is a social practice, you should also think about whether the results of your study are likely to be important and significant to the education community.

If you are doing research in the way we have described—as scientific inquiry—then one purpose of your study is to understand , not just to describe or evaluate or report. As we noted earlier, when you formulate hypotheses, you are developing rationales that explain why things might be like they are. In our view, trying to understand and explain is what separates research from other kinds of activities, like evaluating or describing.

One reason understanding is so important is that it allows researchers to see how or why something works like it does. When you see how something works, you are better able to predict how it might work in other contexts, under other conditions. And, because conditions, or contextual factors, matter a lot in education, gaining insights into applying your findings to other contexts increases the contributions of your work and its importance to the broader education community.

Consequently, the purposes of research studies in education often include the more specific aim of identifying and understanding the conditions under which the phenomena being studied work like the observations suggest. A classic example of this kind of study in mathematics education was reported by William Brownell and Harold Moser in 1949 . They were trying to establish which method of subtracting whole numbers could be taught most effectively—the regrouping method or the equal additions method. However, they realized that effectiveness might depend on the conditions under which the methods were taught—“meaningfully” versus “mechanically.” So, they designed a study that crossed the two instructional approaches with the two different methods (regrouping and equal additions). Among other results, they found that these conditions did matter. The regrouping method was more effective under the meaningful condition than the mechanical condition, but the same was not true for the equal additions algorithm.

What do education researchers want to understand? In our view, the ultimate goal of education is to offer all students the best possible learning opportunities. So, we believe the ultimate purpose of scientific inquiry in education is to develop understanding that supports the improvement of learning opportunities for all students. We say “ultimate” because there are lots of issues that must be understood to improve learning opportunities for all students. Hypotheses about many aspects of education are connected, ultimately, to students’ learning. For example, formulating and testing a hypothesis that preservice teachers need to engage in particular kinds of activities in their coursework in order to teach particular topics well is, ultimately, connected to improving students’ learning opportunities. So is hypothesizing that school districts often devote relatively few resources to instructional leadership training or hypothesizing that positioning mathematics as a tool students can use to combat social injustice can help students see the relevance of mathematics to their lives.

We do not exclude the importance of research on educational issues more removed from improving students’ learning opportunities, but we do think the argument for their importance will be more difficult to make. If there is no way to imagine a connection between your hypothesis and improving learning opportunities for students, even a distant connection, we recommend you reconsider whether it is an important hypothesis within the education community.

Notice that we said the ultimate goal of education is to offer all students the best possible learning opportunities. For too long, educators have been satisfied with a goal of offering rich learning opportunities for lots of students, sometimes even for just the majority of students, but not necessarily for all students. Evaluations of success often are based on outcomes that show high averages. In other words, if many students have learned something, or even a smaller number have learned a lot, educators may have been satisfied. The problem is that there is usually a pattern in the groups of students who receive lower quality opportunities—students of color and students who live in poor areas, urban and rural. This is not acceptable. Consequently, we emphasize the premise that the purpose of education research is to offer rich learning opportunities to all students.

One way to make sure you will be able to convince others of the importance of your study is to consider investigating some aspect of teachers’ shared instructional problems. Historically, researchers in education have set their own research agendas, regardless of the problems teachers are facing in schools. It is increasingly recognized that teachers have had trouble applying to their own classrooms what researchers find. To address this problem, a researcher could partner with a teacher—better yet, a small group of teachers—and talk with them about instructional problems they all share. These discussions can create a rich pool of problems researchers can consider. If researchers pursued one of these problems (preferably alongside teachers), the connection to improving learning opportunities for all students could be direct and immediate. “Grounding a research question in instructional problems that are experienced across multiple teachers’ classrooms helps to ensure that the answer to the question will be of sufficient scope to be relevant and significant beyond the local context” (Cai et al., 2019b , p. 115).

As a beginning researcher, determining the relevance and importance of a research problem is especially challenging. We recommend talking with advisors, other experienced researchers, and peers to test the educational importance of possible research problems and topics of study. You will also learn much more about the issue of research importance when you read Chap. 5 .

Exercise 1.7

Identify a problem in education that is closely connected to improving learning opportunities and a problem that has a less close connection. For each problem, write a brief argument (like a logical sequence of if-then statements) that connects the problem to all students’ learning opportunities.

Part III. Conducting Research as a Practice of Failing Productively

Scientific inquiry involves formulating hypotheses about phenomena that are not fully understood—by you or anyone else. Even if you are able to inform your hypotheses with lots of knowledge that has already been accumulated, you are likely to find that your prediction is not entirely accurate. This is normal. Remember, scientific inquiry is a process of constantly updating your thinking. More and better information means revising your thinking, again, and again, and again. Because you never fully understand a complicated phenomenon and your hypotheses never produce completely accurate predictions, it is easy to believe you are somehow failing.

The trick is to fail upward, to fail to predict accurately in ways that inform your next hypothesis so you can make a better prediction. Some of the best-known researchers in education have been open and honest about the many times their predictions were wrong and, based on the results of their studies and those of others, they continuously updated their thinking and changed their hypotheses.

A striking example of publicly revising (actually reversing) hypotheses due to incorrect predictions is found in the work of Lee J. Cronbach, one of the most distinguished educational psychologists of the twentieth century. In 1955, Cronbach delivered his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Titling it “Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology,” Cronbach proposed a rapprochement between two research approaches—correlational studies that focused on individual differences and experimental studies that focused on instructional treatments controlling for individual differences. (We will examine different research approaches in Chap. 4 ). If these approaches could be brought together, reasoned Cronbach ( 1957 ), researchers could find interactions between individual characteristics and treatments (aptitude-treatment interactions or ATIs), fitting the best treatments to different individuals.

In 1975, after years of research by many researchers looking for ATIs, Cronbach acknowledged the evidence for simple, useful ATIs had not been found. Even when trying to find interactions between a few variables that could provide instructional guidance, the analysis, said Cronbach, creates “a hall of mirrors that extends to infinity, tormenting even the boldest investigators and defeating even ambitious designs” (Cronbach, 1975 , p. 119).

As he was reflecting back on his work, Cronbach ( 1986 ) recommended moving away from documenting instructional effects through statistical inference (an approach he had championed for much of his career) and toward approaches that probe the reasons for these effects, approaches that provide a “full account of events in a time, place, and context” (Cronbach, 1986 , p. 104). This is a remarkable change in hypotheses, a change based on data and made fully transparent. Cronbach understood the value of failing productively.

Closer to home, in a less dramatic example, one of us began a line of scientific inquiry into how to prepare elementary preservice teachers to teach early algebra. Teaching early algebra meant engaging elementary students in early forms of algebraic reasoning. Such reasoning should help them transition from arithmetic to algebra. To begin this line of inquiry, a set of activities for preservice teachers were developed. Even though the activities were based on well-supported hypotheses, they largely failed to engage preservice teachers as predicted because of unanticipated challenges the preservice teachers faced. To capitalize on this failure, follow-up studies were conducted, first to better understand elementary preservice teachers’ challenges with preparing to teach early algebra, and then to better support preservice teachers in navigating these challenges. In this example, the initial failure was a necessary step in the researchers’ scientific inquiry and furthered the researchers’ understanding of this issue.

We present another example of failing productively in Chap. 2 . That example emerges from recounting the history of a well-known research program in mathematics education.

Making mistakes is an inherent part of doing scientific research. Conducting a study is rarely a smooth path from beginning to end. We recommend that you keep the following things in mind as you begin a career of conducting research in education.

First, do not get discouraged when you make mistakes; do not fall into the trap of feeling like you are not capable of doing research because you make too many errors.

Second, learn from your mistakes. Do not ignore your mistakes or treat them as errors that you simply need to forget and move past. Mistakes are rich sites for learning—in research just as in other fields of study.

Third, by reflecting on your mistakes, you can learn to make better mistakes, mistakes that inform you about a productive next step. You will not be able to eliminate your mistakes, but you can set a goal of making better and better mistakes.

Exercise 1.8

How does scientific inquiry differ from everyday learning in giving you the tools to fail upward? You may find helpful perspectives on this question in other resources on science and scientific inquiry (e.g., Failure: Why Science is So Successful by Firestein, 2015).

Exercise 1.9

Use what you have learned in this chapter to write a new definition of scientific inquiry. Compare this definition with the one you wrote before reading this chapter. If you are reading this book as part of a course, compare your definition with your colleagues’ definitions. Develop a consensus definition with everyone in the course.

Part IV. Preview of Chap. 2

Now that you have a good idea of what research is, at least of what we believe research is, the next step is to think about how to actually begin doing research. This means how to begin formulating, testing, and revising hypotheses. As for all phases of scientific inquiry, there are lots of things to think about. Because it is critical to start well, we devote Chap. 2 to getting started with formulating hypotheses.

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Weis, L., Eisenhart, M., Duncan, G. J., Albro, E., Bueschel, A. C., Cobb, P., Eccles, J., Mendenhall, R., Moss, P., Penuel, W., Ream, R. K., Rumbaut, R. G., Sloane, F., Weisner, T. S., & Wilson, J. (2019a). Mixed methods for studies that address broad and enduring issues in education research. Teachers College Record, 121 , 100307.

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Hiebert, J., Cai, J., Hwang, S., Morris, A.K., Hohensee, C. (2023). What Is Research, and Why Do People Do It?. In: Doing Research: A New Researcher’s Guide. Research in Mathematics Education. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-19078-0_1

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Chapter 1 Science and Scientific Research

What is research? Depending on who you ask, you will likely get very different answers to this seemingly innocuous question. Some people will say that they routinely research different online websites to find the best place to buy goods or services they want. Television news channels supposedly conduct research in the form of viewer polls on topics of public interest such as forthcoming elections or government-funded projects. Undergraduate students research the Internet to find the information they need to complete assigned projects or term papers. Graduate students working on research projects for a professor may see research as collecting or analyzing data related to their project. Businesses and consultants research different potential solutions to remedy organizational problems such as a supply chain bottleneck or to identify customer purchase patterns. However, none of the above can be considered “scientific research” unless: (1) it contributes to a body of science, and (2) it follows the scientific method. This chapter will examine what these terms mean.

What is science? To some, science refers to difficult high school or college-level courses such as physics, chemistry, and biology meant only for the brightest students. To others, science is a craft practiced by scientists in white coats using specialized equipment in their laboratories. Etymologically, the word “science” is derived from the Latin word scientia meaning knowledge. Science refers to a systematic and organized body of knowledge in any area of inquiry that is acquired using “the scientific method” (the scientific method is described further below). Science can be grouped into two broad categories: natural science and social science. Natural science is the science of naturally occurring objects or phenomena, such as light, objects, matter, earth, celestial bodies, or the human body. Natural sciences can be further classified into physical sciences, earth sciences, life sciences, and others. Physical sciences consist of disciplines such as physics (the science of physical objects), chemistry (the science of matter), and astronomy (the science of celestial objects). Earth sciences consist of disciplines such as geology (the science of the earth). Life sciences include disciplines such as biology (the science of human bodies) and botany (the science of plants). In contrast, social science is the science of people or collections of people, such as groups, firms, societies, or economies, and their individual or collective behaviors. Social sciences can be classified into disciplines such as psychology (the science of human behaviors), sociology (the science of social groups), and economics (the science of firms, markets, and economies).

The natural sciences are different from the social sciences in several respects. The natural sciences are very precise, accurate, deterministic, and independent of the person m aking the scientific observations. For instance, a scientific experiment in physics, such as measuring the speed of sound through a certain media or the refractive index of water, should always yield the exact same results, irrespective of the time or place of the experiment, or the person conducting the experiment. If two students conducting the same physics experiment obtain two different values of these physical properties, then it generally means that one or both of those students must be in error. However, the same cannot be said for the social sciences, which tend to be less accurate, deterministic, or unambiguous. For instance, if you measure a person’s happiness using a hypothetical instrument, you may find that the same person is more happy or less happy (or sad) on different days and sometimes, at different times on the same day. One’s happiness may vary depending on the news that person received that day or on the events that transpired earlier during that day. Furthermore, there is not a single instrument or metric that can accurately measure a person’s happiness. Hence, one instrument may calibrate a person as being “more happy” while a second instrument may find that the same person is “less happy” at the same instant in time. In other words, there is a high degree of measurement error in the social sciences and there is considerable uncertainty and little agreement on social science policy decisions. For instance, you will not find many disagreements among natural scientists on the speed of light or the speed of the earth around the sun, but you will find numerous disagreements among social scientists on how to solve a social problem such as reduce global terrorism or rescue an economy from a recession. Any student studying the social sciences must be cognizant of and comfortable with handling higher levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, and error that come with such sciences, which merely reflects the high variability of social objects.

Sciences can also be classified based on their purpose. Basic sciences , also called pure sciences, are those that explain the most basic objects and forces, relationships between them, and laws governing them. Examples include physics, mathematics, and biology. Applied sciences , also called practical sciences, are sciences that apply scientific knowledge from basic sciences in a physical environment. For instance, engineering is an applied science that applies the laws of physics and chemistry for practical applications such as building stronger bridges or fuel efficient combustion engines, while medicine is an applied science that applies the laws of biology for solving human ailments. Both basic and applied sciences are required for human development. However, applied sciences cannot stand on their own right, but instead relies on basic sciences for its progress. Of course, the industry and private enterprises tend to focus more on applied sciences given their practical value, while universities study both basic and applied sciences.

Scientific Knowledge

The purpose of science is to create scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge refers to a generalized body of laws and theories to explain a phenomenon or behavior of interest that are acquired using the scientific method. Laws are observed patterns of phenomena or behaviors, while theories are systematic explanations of the underlying phenomenon or behavior. For instance, in physics, the Newtonian Laws of Motion describe what happens when an object is in a state of rest or motion (Newton’s First Law), what force is needed to move a stationary object or stop a moving object (Newton’s Second Law), and what happens when two objects collide (Newton’s Third Law). Collectively, the three laws constitute the basis of classical mechanics – a theory of moving objects. Likewise, the theory of optics explains the properties of light and how it behaves in different media, electromagnetic theory explains the properties of electricity and how to generate it, quantum mechanics explains the properties of subatomic \particles, and thermodynamics explains the properties of energy and mechanical work. An introductory college level text book in physics will likely contain separate chapters devoted to each of these theories. Similar theories are also available in social sciences. For instance, cognitive dissonance theory in psychology explains how people react when their observations of an event is different from what they expected of that event, general deterrence theory explains why some people engage in improper or criminal behaviors, such as illegally download music or commit software piracy, and the theory of planned behavior explains how people make conscious reasoned choices in their everyday lives.

The goal of scientific research is to discover laws and postulate theories that can explain natural or social phenomena, or in other words, build scientific knowledge. It is important to understand that this knowledge may be imperfect or even quite far from the truth. Sometimes, there may not be a single universal truth, but rather an equilibrium of “multiple truths.” We must understand that the theories, upon which scientific knowledge is based, are only explanations of a particular phenomenon, as suggested by a scientist. As such, there may be good or poor explanations, depending on the extent to which those explanations fit well with reality, and consequently, there may be good or poor theories. The progress of science is marked by our progression over time from poorer theories to better theories, through better observations using more accurate instruments and more informed logical reasoning.

We arrive at scientific laws or theories through a process of logic and evidence. Logic (theory) and evidence (observations) are the two, and only two, pillars upon which scientific knowledge is based. In science, theories and observations are interrelated and cannot exist without each other. Theories provide meaning and significance to what we observe, and observations help validate or refine existing theory or construct new theory. Any other means of knowledge acquisition, such as faith or authority cannot be considered science.

Scientific Research

Given that theories and observations are the two pillars of science, scientific research operates at two levels: a theoretical level and an empirical level. The theoretical level is concerned with developing abstract concepts about a natural or social phenomenon and relationships between those concepts (i.e., build “theories”), while the empirical level is concerned with testing the theoretical concepts and relationships to see how well they reflect our observations of reality, with the goal of ultimately building better theories. Over time, a theory becomes more and more refined (i.e., fits the observed reality better), and the science gains maturity. Scientific research involves continually moving back and forth between theory and observations. Both theory and observations are essential components of scientific research. For instance, relying solely on observations for making inferences and ignoring theory is not considered valid scientific research.

Depending on a researcher’s training and interest, scientific inquiry may take one of two possible forms: inductive or deductive. In inductive research , the goal of a researcher is to infer theoretical concepts and patterns from observed data. In deductive research , the goal of the researcher is to test concepts and patterns known from theory using new empirical data. Hence, inductive research is also called theory-building research, and deductive research is theory-testing research. Note here that the goal of theory-testing is not just to test a theory, but possibly to refine, improve, and extend it. Figure 1.1 depicts the complementary nature of inductive and deductive research. Note that inductive and deductive research are two halves of the research cycle that constantly iterates between theory and observations. You cannot do inductive or deductive research if you are not familiar with both the theory and data components of research. Naturally, a complete researcher is one who can traverse the entire research cycle and can handle both inductive and deductive research.

It is important to understand that theory-building (inductive research) and theory-testing (deductive research) are both critical for the advancement of science. Elegant theories are not valuable if they do not match with reality. Likewise, mountains of data are also useless until they can contribute to the construction to meaningful theories. Rather than viewing these two processes in a circular relationship, as shown in Figure 1.1, perhaps they can be better viewed as a helix, with each iteration between theory and data contributing to better explanations of the phenomenon of interest and better theories. Though both inductive and deductive research are important for the advancement of science, it appears that inductive (theory-building) research is more valuable when there are few prior theories or explanations, while deductive (theory-testing) research is more productive when there are many competing theories of the same phenomenon and researchers are interested in knowing which theory works best and under what circumstances.

Theories lead to testing hypothesis which leads to observations, which lead to generalization from observations, which again leads to theories.

Figure 1.1. The Cycle of Research

Theory building and theory testing are particularly difficult in the social sciences, given the imprecise nature of the theoretical concepts, inadequate tools to measure them, and the presence of many unaccounted factors that can also influence the phenomenon of interest. It is also very difficult to refute theories that do not work. For instance, Karl Marx’s theory of communism as an effective means of economic production withstood for decades, before it was finally discredited as being inferior to capitalism in promoting economic growth and social welfare. Erstwhile communist economies like the Soviet Union and China eventually moved toward more capitalistic economies characterized by profit-maximizing private enterprises. However, the recent collapse of the mortgage and financial industries in the United States demonstrates that capitalism also has its flaws and is not as effective in fostering economic growth and social welfare as previously presumed. Unlike theories in the natural sciences, social science theories are rarely perfect, which provides numerous opportunities for researchers to improve those theories or build their own alternative theories.

Conducting scientific research, therefore, requires two sets of skills – theoretical and methodological – needed to operate in the theoretical and empirical levels respectively. Methodological skills (“know-how”) are relatively standard, invariant across disciplines, and easily acquired through doctoral programs. However, theoretical skills (“know-what”) is considerably harder to master, requires years of observation and reflection, and are tacit skills that cannot be “taught” but rather learned though experience. All of the greatest scientists in the history of mankind, such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Neils Bohr, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Simon, were master theoreticians, and they are remembered for the theories they postulated that transformed the course of science. Methodological skills are needed to be an ordinary researcher, but theoretical skills are needed to be an extraordinary researcher!

Scientific Method

In the preceding sections, we described science as knowledge acquired through a scientific method. So what exactly is the “scientific method”? Scientific method refers to a standardized set of techniques for building scientific knowledge, such as how to make valid observations, how to interpret results, and how to generalize those results. The scientific method allows researchers to independently and impartially test preexisting theories and prior findings, and subject them to open debate, modifications, or enhancements. The scientific method must satisfy four characteristics:

  • Replicability: Others should be able to independently replicate or repeat a scientific study and obtain similar, if not identical, results.
  • Precision: Theoretical concepts, which are often hard to measure, must be defined with such precision that others can use those definitions to measure those concepts and test that theory.
  • Falsifiability: A theory must be stated in a way that it can be disproven. Theories that cannot be tested or falsified are not scientific theories and any such knowledge is not scientific knowledge. A theory that is specified in imprecise terms or whose concepts are not accurately measurable cannot be tested, and is therefore not scientific. Sigmund Freud’s ideas on psychoanalysis fall into this category and is therefore not considered a

“theory”, even though psychoanalysis may have practical utility in treating certain types of ailments.

  • Parsimony: When there are multiple explanations of a phenomenon, scientists must always accept the simplest or logically most economical explanation. This concept is called parsimony or “Occam’s razor.” Parsimony prevents scientists from pursuing overly complex or outlandish theories with endless number of concepts and relationships that may explain a little bit of everything but nothing in particular.

Any branch of inquiry that does not allow the scientific method to test its basic laws or theories cannot be called “science.” For instance, theology (the study of religion) is not science because theological ideas (such as the presence of God) cannot be tested by independent observers using a replicable, precise, falsifiable, and parsimonious method. Similarly, arts, music, literature, humanities, and law are also not considered science, even though they are creative and worthwhile endeavors in their own right.

The scientific method, as applied to social sciences, includes a variety of research approaches, tools, and techniques, such as qualitative and quantitative data, statistical analysis, experiments, field surveys, case research, and so forth. Most of this book is devoted to learning about these different methods. However, recognize that the scientific method operates primarily at the empirical level of research, i.e., how to make observations and analyze and interpret these observations. Very little of this method is directly pertinent to the theoretical level, which is really the more challenging part of scientific research.

Types of Scientific Research

Depending on the purpose of research, scientific research projects can be grouped into three types: exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory. Exploratory research is often conducted in new areas of inquiry, where the goals of the research are: (1) to scope out the magnitude or extent of a particular phenomenon, problem, or behavior, (2) to generate some initial ideas (or “hunches”) about that phenomenon, or (3) to test the feasibility of undertaking a more extensive study regarding that phenomenon. For instance, if the citizens of a country are generally dissatisfied with governmental policies regarding during an economic recession, exploratory research may be directed at measuring the extent of citizens’ dissatisfaction, understanding how such dissatisfaction is manifested, such as the frequency of public protests, and the presumed causes of such dissatisfaction, such as ineffective government policies in dealing with inflation, interest rates, unemployment, or higher taxes. Such research may include examination of publicly reported figures, such as estimates of economic indicators, such as gross domestic product (GDP), unemployment, and consumer price index, as archived by third-party sources, obtained through interviews of experts, eminent economists, or key government officials, and/or derived from studying historical examples of dealing with similar problems. This research may not lead to a very accurate understanding of the target problem, but may be worthwhile in scoping out the nature and extent of the problem and serve as a useful precursor to more in-depth research.

Descriptive research is directed at making careful observations and detailed documentation of a phenomenon of interest. These observations must be based on the scientific method (i.e., must be replicable, precise, etc.), and therefore, are more reliable than casual observations by untrained people. Examples of descriptive research are tabulation of demographic statistics by the United States Census Bureau or employment statistics by the Bureau of Labor, who use the same or similar instruments for estimating employment by sector or population growth by ethnicity over multiple employment surveys or censuses. If any changes are made to the measuring instruments, estimates are provided with and without the changed instrumentation to allow the readers to make a fair before-and-after comparison regarding population or employment trends. Other descriptive research may include chronicling ethnographic reports of gang activities among adolescent youth in urban populations, the persistence or evolution of religious, cultural, or ethnic practices in select communities, and the role of technologies such as Twitter and instant messaging in the spread of democracy movements in Middle Eastern countries.

Explanatory research seeks explanations of observed phenomena, problems, or behaviors. While descriptive research examines the what, where, and when of a phenomenon, explanatory research seeks answers to why and how types of questions. It attempts to “connect the dots” in research, by identifying causal factors and outcomes of the target phenomenon. Examples include understanding the reasons behind adolescent crime or gang violence, with the goal of prescribing strategies to overcome such societal ailments. Most academic or doctoral research belongs to the explanation category, though some amount of exploratory and/or descriptive research may also be needed during initial phases of academic research. Seeking explanations for observed events requires strong theoretical and interpretation skills, along with intuition, insights, and personal experience. Those who can do it well are also the most prized scientists in their disciplines.

History of Scientific Thought

Before closing this chapter, it may be interesting to go back in history and see how science has evolved over time and identify the key scientific minds in this evolution. Although instances of scientific progress have been documented over many centuries, the terms “science,” “scientists,” and the “scientific method” were coined only in the 19 th century. Prior to this time, science was viewed as a part of philosophy, and coexisted with other branches of philosophy such as logic, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, although the boundaries between some of these branches were blurred.

In the earliest days of human inquiry, knowledge was usually recognized in terms of theological precepts based on faith. This was challenged by Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates during the 3 rd century BC, who suggested that the fundamental nature of being and the world can be understood more accurately through a process of systematic logical reasoning called rationalism . In particular, Aristotle’s classic work Metaphysics (literally meaning “beyond physical [existence]”) separated theology (the study of Gods) from ontology (the study of being and existence) and universal science (the study of first principles, upon which logic is based). Rationalism (not to be confused with “rationality”) views reason as the source of knowledge or justification, and suggests that the criterion of truth is not sensory but rather intellectual and deductive, often derived from a set of first principles or axioms (such as Aristotle’s “law of non-contradiction”).

The next major shift in scientific thought occurred during the 16 th century, when British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) suggested that knowledge can only be derived from observations in the real world. Based on this premise, Bacon emphasized knowledge acquisition as an empirical activity (rather than as a reasoning activity), and developed empiricism as an influential branch of philosophy. Bacon’s works led to the popularization of inductive methods of scientific inquiry, the development of the “scientific method” (originally called the “Baconian method”), consisting of systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation, and may have even sowed the seeds of atheism or the rejection of theological precepts as “unobservable.”

Empiricism continued to clash with rationalism throughout the Middle Ages, as philosophers sought the most effective way of gaining valid knowledge. French philosopher Rene Descartes sided with the rationalists, while British philosophers John Locke and David Hume sided with the empiricists. Other scientists, such as Galileo Galilei and Sir Issac Newton, attempted to fuse the two ideas into natural philosophy (the philosophy of nature), to focus specifically on understanding nature and the physical universe, which is considered to be the precursor of the natural sciences. Galileo (1564-1642) was perhaps the first to state that the laws of nature are mathematical, and contributed to the field of astronomy through an innovative combination of experimentation and mathematics.

In the 18 th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant sought to resolve the dispute between empiricism and rationalism in his book Critique of Pure Reason , by arguing that experience is purely subjective and processing them using pure reason without first delving into the subjective nature of experiences will lead to theoretical illusions. Kant’s ideas led to the development of German idealism , which inspired later development of interpretive techniques such as phenomenology, hermeneutics, and critical social theory.

At about the same time, French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), founder of the discipline of sociology, attempted to blend rationalism and empiricism in a new doctrine called positivism . He suggested that theory and observations have circular dependence on each other. While theories may be created via reasoning, they are only authentic if they can be verified through observations. The emphasis on verification started the separation of modern science from philosophy and metaphysics and further development of the “scientific method” as the primary means of validating scientific claims. Comte’s ideas were expanded by Emile Durkheim in his development of sociological positivism (positivism as a foundation for social research) and Ludwig Wittgenstein in logical positivism.

In the early 20 th century, strong accounts of positivism were rejected by interpretive sociologists (antipositivists) belonging to the German idealism school of thought. Positivism was typically equated with quantitative research methods such as experiments and surveys and without any explicit philosophical commitments, while antipositivism employed qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews and participant observation. Even practitioners of positivism, such as American sociologist Paul Lazarsfield who pioneered large-scale survey research and statistical techniques for analyzing survey data, acknowledged potential problems of observer bias and structural limitations in positivist inquiry. In response, antipositivists emphasized that social actions must be studied though interpretive means based upon an understanding the meaning and purpose that individuals attach to their personal actions, which inspired Georg Simmel’s work on symbolic interactionism, Max Weber’s work on ideal types, and Edmund Husserl’s work on phenomenology.

In the mid-to-late 20 th century, both positivist and antipositivist schools of thought were subjected to criticisms and modifications. British philosopher Sir Karl Popper suggested that human knowledge is based not on unchallengeable, rock solid foundations, but rather on a set of tentative conjectures that can never be proven conclusively, but only disproven. Empirical evidence is the basis for disproving these conjectures or “theories.” This metatheoretical stance, called postpositivism (or postempiricism), amends positivism by suggesting that it is impossible to verify the truth although it is possible to reject false beliefs, though it retains the positivist notion of an objective truth and its emphasis on the scientific method.

Likewise, antipositivists have also been criticized for trying only to understand society but not critiquing and changing society for the better. The roots of this thought lie in Das Capital , written by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which critiqued capitalistic societies as being social inequitable and inefficient, and recommended resolving this inequity through class conflict and proletarian revolutions. Marxism inspired social revolutions in countries such as Germany, Italy, Russia, and China, but generally failed to accomplish the social equality that it aspired. Critical research (also called critical theory) propounded by Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas in the 20 th century, retains similar ideas of critiquing and resolving social inequality, and adds that people can and should consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, although their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. Critical research attempts to uncover and critique the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo by analyzing the oppositions, conflicts and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination (i.e., emancipate the oppressed class). More on these different research philosophies and approaches will be covered in future chapters of this book.

  • Social Science Research: Principles, Methods, and Practices. Authored by : Anol Bhattacherjee. Provided by : University of South Florida. Located at : http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/oa_textbooks/3/ . License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

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What is Scientific Research?

Research study design, natural vs. social science, qualitative vs. quantitative research, more information on qualitative research in the social sciences, acknowledgements.

Thank you to Julie Miller, reference intern, for helping to create this page.

Some people use the term research loosely, for example:

  • People will say they are researching different online websites to find the best place to buy a new appliance or locate a lawn care service.
  • TV news may talk about conducting research when they conduct a viewer poll on current event topic such as an upcoming election.
  • Undergraduate students working on a term paper or project may say they are researching the internet to find information.
  • Private sector companies may say they are conducting research to find a solution for a supply chain holdup.

However, none of the above is considered “scientific research” unless:

  • The research contributes to a body of science by providing new information through ethical study design or
  • The research follows the scientific method, an iterative process of observation and inquiry.

The Scientific Method

  • Make an observation: notice a phenomenon in your life or in society or find a gap in the already published literature.
  • Ask a question about what you have observed.
  • Hypothesize about a potential answer or explanation.
  • Make predictions if our hypothesis is correct.
  • Design an experiment or study that will test your prediction.
  • Test the prediction by conducting an experiment or study; report the outcomes of your study.
  • Iterate! Was your prediction correct? Was the outcome unexpected? Did it lead to new observations?

The scientific method is not separate from the Research Process as described in the rest of this guide, in fact the Research Process is directly related to the observation stage of the scientific method. Understanding what other scientists and researchers have already studied will help you focus your area of study and build on their knowledge.

Designing your experiment or study is important for both natural and social scientists. Sage Research Methods (SRM) has an excellent "Project Planner" that guides you through the basic stages of research design. SRM also has excellent explanations of qualitative and quantitative research methods for the social sciences.

For the natural sciences, Springer Nature Experiments and Protocol Exchange have guidance on quantitative research methods.

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Springer Nature Experiments has been designed to help users/researchers find and evaluate relevant protocols and methods across the whole Springer Nature protocols and methods portfolio using one search. This database includes:

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Qualitative research is primarily exploratory. It is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. Qualitative research is also used to uncover trends in thought and opinions and to dive deeper into a problem by studying an individual or a group.

Qualitative methods usually use unstructured or semi-structured techniques. The sample size is typically smaller than in quantitative research.

Example: interviews and focus groups.

Quantitative research is characterized by the gathering of data with the aim of testing a hypothesis. The data generated are numerical, or, if not numerical, can be transformed into useable statistics.

Quantitative data collection methods are more structured than qualitative data collection methods and sample sizes are usually larger.

Example: survey

Note: The above descriptions of qualitative and quantitative research are mainly for research in the Social Sciences, rather than for Natural Sciences as most natural sciences rely on quantitative methods for their experiments.

Qualitative research is approaching the world in its natural setting and in a way that reveals the particularities rather than doing studies in a controlled setting. It aims to understand, describe, and sometimes explain social phenomena in a number of different ways:

  • Experiences of individuals or groups
  • Interactions and communications
  • Documents (texts, images, film, or sounds, and digital documents)
  • Experiences or interactions

Qualitative researchers seek to understand how people conceptualize the world around them, what they are doing, how they are doing it or what is happening to them in terms that are significant and that offer meaningful learnings.

Qualitative researchers develop and refine concepts (or hypotheses, if they are used) in the process of research and of collecting data. Cases (its history and complexity) are an important context for understanding the issue that is studied. A major part of qualitative research is based on text and writing – from field notes and transcripts to descriptions and interpretations and finally to the presentation of the findings and of the research as a whole.

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Module 1: Introduction: What is Research?

Module 1

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain how the scientific method is used to develop new knowledge
  • Describe why it is important to follow a research plan

Text Box: The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method consists of observing the world around you and creating a  hypothesis  about relationships in the world. A hypothesis is an informed and educated prediction or explanation about something. Part of the research process involves testing the  hypothesis , and then examining the results of these tests as they relate to both the hypothesis and the world around you. When a researcher forms a hypothesis, this acts like a map through the research study. It tells the researcher which factors are important to study and how they might be related to each other or caused by a  manipulation  that the researcher introduces (e.g. a program, treatment or change in the environment). With this map, the researcher can interpret the information he/she collects and can make sound conclusions about the results.

Research can be done with human beings, animals, plants, other organisms and inorganic matter. When research is done with human beings and animals, it must follow specific rules about the treatment of humans and animals that have been created by the U.S. Federal Government. This ensures that humans and animals are treated with dignity and respect, and that the research causes minimal harm.

No matter what topic is being studied, the value of the research depends on how well it is designed and done. Therefore, one of the most important considerations in doing good research is to follow the design or plan that is developed by an experienced researcher who is called the  Principal Investigator  (PI). The PI is in charge of all aspects of the research and creates what is called a  protocol  (the research plan) that all people doing the research must follow. By doing so, the PI and the public can be sure that the results of the research are real and useful to other scientists.

Module 1: Discussion Questions

  • How is a hypothesis like a road map?
  • Who is ultimately responsible for the design and conduct of a research study?
  • How does following the research protocol contribute to informing public health practices?

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What is Research?

Research is an often-misused term, its usage in everyday language very different from the strict scientific meaning.

This article is a part of the guide:

  • Definition of Research
  • Research Basics
  • Steps of the Scientific Method
  • Purpose of Research
  • What is the Scientific Method?

Browse Full Outline

  • 1 Research Basics
  • 2.1 What is Research?
  • 2.2 What is the Scientific Method?
  • 2.3 Empirical Research
  • 3.1 Definition of Research
  • 3.2 Definition of the Scientific Method
  • 3.3 Definition of Science
  • 4 Steps of the Scientific Method
  • 5 Scientific Elements
  • 6 Aims of Research
  • 7 Purpose of Research
  • 8 Science Misconceptions

In the field of science, it is important to move away from the looser meaning and use it only in its proper context. Scientific research adheres to a set of strict protocols and long established structures.

Definition of the Scientific Method

Often, we will talk about conducting internet research or say that we are researching in the library. In everyday language, it is perfectly correct grammatically, but in science , it gives a misleading impression. The correct and most common term used in science is that we are conducting a literature review .

a scientific research is

The Guidelines

What is research ? For a successful career in science, you must understand the methodology behind any research and be aware of the correct protocols.

Science has developed these guidelines over many years as the benchmark for measuring the validity of the results obtained.

Failure to follow the guidelines will prevent your findings from being accepted and taken seriously. These protocols can vary slightly between scientific disciplines, but all follow the same basic structure.

a scientific research is

Aims of Research

The general aims of research are:

Observe and Describe

Determination of the Causes

Purpose of Research - Why do we conduct research? Why is it necessary?

Steps of the Scientific Process

The steps of the scientific process has a structure similar to an hourglass - The structure starts with general questions, narrowing down to focus on one specific aspect , then designing research where we can observe and analyze this aspect. At last, the hourglass widens and the researcher concludes and generalizes the findings to the real world.

Steps of the Scientific Method

  • Summary of the Elements in Scientific Research

1) Setting a Goal

Research in all disciplines and subjects, not just science, must begin with a clearly defined goal . This usually, but not always, takes the form of a hypothesis .

For example, an anthropological study may not have a specific hypothesis or principle, but does have a specific goal, in studying the culture of a certain people and trying to understand and interpret their behavior.

The whole study is designed around this clearly defined goal, and it should address a unique issue, building upon previous research and scientifically accepted fundamentals. Whilst nothing in science can be regarded as truth, basic assumptions are made at all stages of the research, building upon widely accepted knowledge.

2) Interpretation of the Results

Research does require some interpretation and extrapolation of results.

In scientific research, there is always some kind of connection between data (information gathered) and why the scientist think that the data looks as it does. Often the researcher looks at the data gathered, and then comes to a conclusion of why the data looks like it does.

A history paper, for example, which just reorganizes facts and makes no commentary on the results, is not research but a review .

If you think of it this way, somebody writing a school textbook is not performing research and is offering no new insights. They are merely documenting pre-existing data into a new format.

If the same writer interjects their personal opinion and tries to prove or disprove a hypothesis , then they are moving into the area of genuine research. Science tends to use experimentation to study and interpret a specific hypothesis or question, allowing a gradual accumulation of knowledge that slowly becomes a basic assumption.

3) Replication and Gradual Accumulation

For any study, there must be a clear procedure so that the experiment can be replicated and the results verified.

Again, there is a bit of a grey area for observation-based research , as is found in anthropology, behavioral biology and social science, but they still fit most of the other criteria.

Planning and designing the experimental method , is an important part of the project and should revolve around answering specific predictions and questions . This will allow an exact duplication and verification by independent researchers, ensuring that the results are accepted as real.

Most scientific research looks at an area and breaks it down into easily tested pieces.

The gradual experimentation upon these individual pieces will allow the larger questions to be approached and answered, breaking down a large and seemingly insurmountable problem, into manageable chunks.

True research never gives a definitive answer but encourages more research in another direction. Even if a hypothesis is disproved, that will give an answer and generate new ideas, as it is refined and developed.

Research is cyclical, with the results generated leading to new areas or a refinement of the original process.

4) Conclusion

The term, research , is much stricter in science than in everyday life.

It revolves around using the scientific method to generate hypotheses and provide analyzable results. All scientific research has a goal and ultimate aim , repeated and refined experimentation gradually reaching an answer.

These results are a way of gradually uncovering truths and finding out about the processes that drive the universe around us. Only by having a rigid structure to experimentation, can results be verified as acceptable contributions to science.

Some other areas, such as history and economics, also perform true research, but tend to have their own structures in place for generating solid results. They also contribute to human knowledge but with different processes and systems.

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Science and the scientific method: Definitions and examples

Here's a look at the foundation of doing science — the scientific method.

Kids follow the scientific method to carry out an experiment.

The scientific method

Hypothesis, theory and law, a brief history of science, additional resources, bibliography.

Science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work. It is also the body of knowledge accumulated through the discoveries about all the things in the universe. 

The word "science" is derived from the Latin word "scientia," which means knowledge based on demonstrable and reproducible data, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary . True to this definition, science aims for measurable results through testing and analysis, a process known as the scientific method. Science is based on fact, not opinion or preferences. The process of science is designed to challenge ideas through research. One important aspect of the scientific process is that it focuses only on the natural world, according to the University of California, Berkeley . Anything that is considered supernatural, or beyond physical reality, does not fit into the definition of science.

When conducting research, scientists use the scientific method to collect measurable, empirical evidence in an experiment related to a hypothesis (often in the form of an if/then statement) that is designed to support or contradict a scientific theory .

"As a field biologist, my favorite part of the scientific method is being in the field collecting the data," Jaime Tanner, a professor of biology at Marlboro College, told Live Science. "But what really makes that fun is knowing that you are trying to answer an interesting question. So the first step in identifying questions and generating possible answers (hypotheses) is also very important and is a creative process. Then once you collect the data you analyze it to see if your hypothesis is supported or not."

Here's an illustration showing the steps in the scientific method.

The steps of the scientific method go something like this, according to Highline College :

  • Make an observation or observations.
  • Form a hypothesis — a tentative description of what's been observed, and make predictions based on that hypothesis.
  • Test the hypothesis and predictions in an experiment that can be reproduced.
  • Analyze the data and draw conclusions; accept or reject the hypothesis or modify the hypothesis if necessary.
  • Reproduce the experiment until there are no discrepancies between observations and theory. "Replication of methods and results is my favorite step in the scientific method," Moshe Pritsker, a former post-doctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School and CEO of JoVE, told Live Science. "The reproducibility of published experiments is the foundation of science. No reproducibility — no science."

Some key underpinnings to the scientific method:

  • The hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable, according to North Carolina State University . Falsifiable means that there must be a possible negative answer to the hypothesis.
  • Research must involve deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning . Deductive reasoning is the process of using true premises to reach a logical true conclusion while inductive reasoning uses observations to infer an explanation for those observations.
  • An experiment should include a dependent variable (which does not change) and an independent variable (which does change), according to the University of California, Santa Barbara .
  • An experiment should include an experimental group and a control group. The control group is what the experimental group is compared against, according to Britannica .

The process of generating and testing a hypothesis forms the backbone of the scientific method. When an idea has been confirmed over many experiments, it can be called a scientific theory. While a theory provides an explanation for a phenomenon, a scientific law provides a description of a phenomenon, according to The University of Waikato . One example would be the law of conservation of energy, which is the first law of thermodynamics that says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. 

A law describes an observed phenomenon, but it doesn't explain why the phenomenon exists or what causes it. "In science, laws are a starting place," said Peter Coppinger, an associate professor of biology and biomedical engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. "From there, scientists can then ask the questions, 'Why and how?'"

Laws are generally considered to be without exception, though some laws have been modified over time after further testing found discrepancies. For instance, Newton's laws of motion describe everything we've observed in the macroscopic world, but they break down at the subatomic level.

This does not mean theories are not meaningful. For a hypothesis to become a theory, scientists must conduct rigorous testing, typically across multiple disciplines by separate groups of scientists. Saying something is "just a theory" confuses the scientific definition of "theory" with the layperson's definition. To most people a theory is a hunch. In science, a theory is the framework for observations and facts, Tanner told Live Science.

This Copernican heliocentric solar system, from 1708, shows the orbit of the moon around the Earth, and the orbits of the Earth and planets round the sun, including Jupiter and its moons, all surrounded by the 12 signs of the zodiac.

The earliest evidence of science can be found as far back as records exist. Early tablets contain numerals and information about the solar system , which were derived by using careful observation, prediction and testing of those predictions. Science became decidedly more "scientific" over time, however.

1200s: Robert Grosseteste developed the framework for the proper methods of modern scientific experimentation, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. His works included the principle that an inquiry must be based on measurable evidence that is confirmed through testing.

1400s: Leonardo da Vinci began his notebooks in pursuit of evidence that the human body is microcosmic. The artist, scientist and mathematician also gathered information about optics and hydrodynamics.

1500s: Nicolaus Copernicus advanced the understanding of the solar system with his discovery of heliocentrism. This is a model in which Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun, which is the center of the solar system.

1600s: Johannes Kepler built upon those observations with his laws of planetary motion. Galileo Galilei improved on a new invention, the telescope, and used it to study the sun and planets. The 1600s also saw advancements in the study of physics as Isaac Newton developed his laws of motion.

1700s: Benjamin Franklin discovered that lightning is electrical. He also contributed to the study of oceanography and meteorology. The understanding of chemistry also evolved during this century as Antoine Lavoisier, dubbed the father of modern chemistry , developed the law of conservation of mass.

1800s: Milestones included Alessandro Volta's discoveries regarding electrochemical series, which led to the invention of the battery. John Dalton also introduced atomic theory, which stated that all matter is composed of atoms that combine to form molecules. The basis of modern study of genetics advanced as Gregor Mendel unveiled his laws of inheritance. Later in the century, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays , while George Ohm's law provided the basis for understanding how to harness electrical charges.

1900s: The discoveries of Albert Einstein , who is best known for his theory of relativity, dominated the beginning of the 20th century. Einstein's theory of relativity is actually two separate theories. His special theory of relativity, which he outlined in a 1905 paper, " The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies ," concluded that time must change according to the speed of a moving object relative to the frame of reference of an observer. His second theory of general relativity, which he published as " The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity ," advanced the idea that matter causes space to curve.

In 1952, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine , which reduced the incidence of polio in the United States by nearly 90%, according to Britannica . The following year, James D. Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA , which is a double helix formed by base pairs attached to a sugar-phosphate backbone, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute .

2000s: The 21st century saw the first draft of the human genome completed, leading to a greater understanding of DNA. This advanced the study of genetics, its role in human biology and its use as a predictor of diseases and other disorders, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute .

  • This video from City University of New York delves into the basics of what defines science.
  • Learn about what makes science science in this book excerpt from Washington State University .
  • This resource from the University of Michigan — Flint explains how to design your own scientific study.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Scientia. 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scientia

University of California, Berkeley, "Understanding Science: An Overview." 2022. ​​ https://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/intro_01  

Highline College, "Scientific method." July 12, 2015. https://people.highline.edu/iglozman/classes/astronotes/scimeth.htm  

North Carolina State University, "Science Scripts." https://projects.ncsu.edu/project/bio183de/Black/science/science_scripts.html  

University of California, Santa Barbara. "What is an Independent variable?" October 31,2017. http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=6045  

Encyclopedia Britannica, "Control group." May 14, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/science/control-group  

The University of Waikato, "Scientific Hypothesis, Theories and Laws." https://sci.waikato.ac.nz/evolution/Theories.shtml  

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Robert Grosseteste. May 3, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/grosseteste/  

Encyclopedia Britannica, "Jonas Salk." October 21, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/ biography /Jonas-Salk

National Human Genome Research Institute, "​Phosphate Backbone." https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Phosphate-Backbone  

National Human Genome Research Institute, "What is the Human Genome Project?" https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project/What  

‌ Live Science contributor Ashley Hamer updated this article on Jan. 16, 2022.

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What is the Scientific Method: How does it work and why is it important?

The scientific method is a systematic process involving steps like defining questions, forming hypotheses, conducting experiments, and analyzing data. It minimizes biases and enables replicable research, leading to groundbreaking discoveries like Einstein's theory of relativity, penicillin, and the structure of DNA. This ongoing approach promotes reason, evidence, and the pursuit of truth in science.

Updated on November 18, 2023

What is the Scientific Method: How does it work and why is it important?

Beginning in elementary school, we are exposed to the scientific method and taught how to put it into practice. As a tool for learning, it prepares children to think logically and use reasoning when seeking answers to questions.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, the scientific method gives us a recipe for exploring the world through observation and trial and error. We use it regularly, sometimes knowingly in academics or research, and sometimes subconsciously in our daily lives.

In this article we will refresh our memories on the particulars of the scientific method, discussing where it comes from, which elements comprise it, and how it is put into practice. Then, we will consider the importance of the scientific method, who uses it and under what circumstances.

What is the scientific method?

The scientific method is a dynamic process that involves objectively investigating questions through observation and experimentation . Applicable to all scientific disciplines, this systematic approach to answering questions is more accurately described as a flexible set of principles than as a fixed series of steps.

The following representations of the scientific method illustrate how it can be both condensed into broad categories and also expanded to reveal more and more details of the process. These graphics capture the adaptability that makes this concept universally valuable as it is relevant and accessible not only across age groups and educational levels but also within various contexts.

a graph of the scientific method

Steps in the scientific method

While the scientific method is versatile in form and function, it encompasses a collection of principles that create a logical progression to the process of problem solving:

  • Define a question : Constructing a clear and precise problem statement that identifies the main question or goal of the investigation is the first step. The wording must lend itself to experimentation by posing a question that is both testable and measurable.
  • Gather information and resources : Researching the topic in question to find out what is already known and what types of related questions others are asking is the next step in this process. This background information is vital to gaining a full understanding of the subject and in determining the best design for experiments. 
  • Form a hypothesis : Composing a concise statement that identifies specific variables and potential results, which can then be tested, is a crucial step that must be completed before any experimentation. An imperfection in the composition of a hypothesis can result in weaknesses to the entire design of an experiment.
  • Perform the experiments : Testing the hypothesis by performing replicable experiments and collecting resultant data is another fundamental step of the scientific method. By controlling some elements of an experiment while purposely manipulating others, cause and effect relationships are established.
  • Analyze the data : Interpreting the experimental process and results by recognizing trends in the data is a necessary step for comprehending its meaning and supporting the conclusions. Drawing inferences through this systematic process lends substantive evidence for either supporting or rejecting the hypothesis.
  • Report the results : Sharing the outcomes of an experiment, through an essay, presentation, graphic, or journal article, is often regarded as a final step in this process. Detailing the project's design, methods, and results not only promotes transparency and replicability but also adds to the body of knowledge for future research.
  • Retest the hypothesis : Repeating experiments to see if a hypothesis holds up in all cases is a step that is manifested through varying scenarios. Sometimes a researcher immediately checks their own work or replicates it at a future time, or another researcher will repeat the experiments to further test the hypothesis.

a chart of the scientific method

Where did the scientific method come from?

Oftentimes, ancient peoples attempted to answer questions about the unknown by:

  • Making simple observations
  • Discussing the possibilities with others deemed worthy of a debate
  • Drawing conclusions based on dominant opinions and preexisting beliefs

For example, take Greek and Roman mythology. Myths were used to explain everything from the seasons and stars to the sun and death itself.

However, as societies began to grow through advancements in agriculture and language, ancient civilizations like Egypt and Babylonia shifted to a more rational analysis for understanding the natural world. They increasingly employed empirical methods of observation and experimentation that would one day evolve into the scientific method . 

In the 4th century, Aristotle, considered the Father of Science by many, suggested these elements , which closely resemble the contemporary scientific method, as part of his approach for conducting science:

  • Study what others have written about the subject.
  • Look for the general consensus about the subject.
  • Perform a systematic study of everything even partially related to the topic.

a pyramid of the scientific method

By continuing to emphasize systematic observation and controlled experiments, scholars such as Al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham helped expand this concept throughout the Islamic Golden Age . 

In his 1620 treatise, Novum Organum , Sir Francis Bacon codified the scientific method, arguing not only that hypotheses must be tested through experiments but also that the results must be replicated to establish a truth. Coming at the height of the Scientific Revolution, this text made the scientific method accessible to European thinkers like Galileo and Isaac Newton who then put the method into practice.

As science modernized in the 19th century, the scientific method became more formalized, leading to significant breakthroughs in fields such as evolution and germ theory. Today, it continues to evolve, underpinning scientific progress in diverse areas like quantum mechanics, genetics, and artificial intelligence.

Why is the scientific method important?

The history of the scientific method illustrates how the concept developed out of a need to find objective answers to scientific questions by overcoming biases based on fear, religion, power, and cultural norms. This still holds true today.

By implementing this standardized approach to conducting experiments, the impacts of researchers’ personal opinions and preconceived notions are minimized. The organized manner of the scientific method prevents these and other mistakes while promoting the replicability and transparency necessary for solid scientific research.

The importance of the scientific method is best observed through its successes, for example: 

  • “ Albert Einstein stands out among modern physicists as the scientist who not only formulated a theory of revolutionary significance but also had the genius to reflect in a conscious and technical way on the scientific method he was using.” Devising a hypothesis based on the prevailing understanding of Newtonian physics eventually led Einstein to devise the theory of general relativity .
  • Howard Florey “Perhaps the most useful lesson which has come out of the work on penicillin has been the demonstration that success in this field depends on the development and coordinated use of technical methods.” After discovering a mold that prevented the growth of Staphylococcus bacteria, Dr. Alexander Flemimg designed experiments to identify and reproduce it in the lab, thus leading to the development of penicillin .
  • James D. Watson “Every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely. Only with the discovery of the double helix and the ensuing genetic revolution have we had grounds for thinking that the powers held traditionally to be the exclusive property of the gods might one day be ours. . . .” By using wire models to conceive a structure for DNA, Watson and Crick crafted a hypothesis for testing combinations of amino acids, X-ray diffraction images, and the current research in atomic physics, resulting in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure .

Final thoughts

As the cases exemplify, the scientific method is never truly completed, but rather started and restarted. It gave these researchers a structured process that was easily replicated, modified, and built upon. 

While the scientific method may “end” in one context, it never literally ends. When a hypothesis, design, methods, and experiments are revisited, the scientific method simply picks up where it left off. Each time a researcher builds upon previous knowledge, the scientific method is restored with the pieces of past efforts.

By guiding researchers towards objective results based on transparency and reproducibility, the scientific method acts as a defense against bias, superstition, and preconceived notions. As we embrace the scientific method's enduring principles, we ensure that our quest for knowledge remains firmly rooted in reason, evidence, and the pursuit of truth.

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Science has an ai problem. this group says they can fix it..

By Scott Lyon

May 1, 2024

Illustrated team of scientists around a table with data visualized on the wall.

Researchers recommend 32 best practices to stamp out a smoldering crisis that threatens to engulf all of science: thousands of AI-driven claims across dozens of fields that cannot be reproduced. Illustration courtesy Adobe Stock

AI holds the potential to help doctors find early markers of disease and policymakers to avoid decisions that lead to war. But a growing body of evidence has revealed deep flaws in how machine learning is used in science, a problem that has swept through dozens of fields and implicated thousands of erroneous papers.

Now an interdisciplinary team of 19 researchers, led by Princeton University computer scientists Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor, has published guidelines for the responsible use of machine learning in science.

“When we graduate from traditional statistical methods to machine learning methods, there are a vastly greater number of ways to shoot oneself in the foot,” said Narayanan , director of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy and a professor of computer science . “If we don’t have an intervention to improve our scientific standards and reporting standards when it comes to machine learning-based science, we risk not just one discipline but many different scientific disciplines rediscovering these crises one after another.”

The authors say their work is an effort to stamp out this smoldering crisis of credibility that threatens to engulf nearly every corner of the research enterprise. A paper detailing their guidelines appeared May 1 in the journal Science Advances .

Because machine learning has been adopted across virtually every scientific discipline, with no universal standards safeguarding the integrity of those methods, Narayanan said the current crisis, which he calls the reproducibility crisis , could become far more serious than the replication crisis that emerged in social psychology more than a decade ago.

The good news is that a simple set of best practices can help resolve this newer crisis before it gets out of hand, according to the authors, who come from computer science, mathematics, social science and health research.

“This is a systematic problem with systematic solutions,” said Kapoor , a graduate student who works with Narayanan and who organized the effort to produce the new consensus-based checklist.

The checklist focuses on ensuring the integrity of research that uses machine learning. Science depends on the ability to independently reproduce results and validate claims. Otherwise, new work cannot be reliably built atop old work, and the entire enterprise collapses. While other researchers have developed checklists that apply to discipline-specific problems, notably in medicine, the new guidelines start with the underlying methods and apply them to any quantitative discipline.

One of the main takeaways is transparency. The checklist calls on researchers to provide detailed descriptions of each machine learning model, including the code, the data used to train and test the model, the hardware specifications used to produce the results, the experimental design, the project’s goals and any limitations of the study’s findings. The standards are flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of nuance, including private datasets and complex hardware configurations, according to the authors.

While the increased rigor of these new standards might slow the publication of any given study, the authors believe wide adoption of these standards would increase the overall rate of discovery and innovation, potentially by a lot.

“What we ultimately care about is the pace of scientific progress,” said sociologist Emily Cantrell , one of the lead authors, who is pursuing her Ph.D. at Princeton. “By making sure the papers that get published are of high quality and that they’re a solid base for future papers to build on, that potentially then speeds up the pace of scientific progress. Focusing on scientific progress itself and not just getting papers out the door is really where our emphasis should be.”

Kapoor concurred. The errors hurt. “At the collective level, it’s just a major time sink,” he said. That time costs money. And that money, once wasted, could have catastrophic downstream effects, limiting the kinds of science that attract funding and investment, tanking ventures that are inadvertently built on faulty science, and discouraging countless numbers of young researchers.

In working toward a consensus about what should be included in the guidelines, the authors said they aimed to strike a balance: simple enough to be widely adopted, comprehensive enough to catch as many common mistakes as possible.

They say researchers could adopt the standards to improve their own work; peer reviewers could use the checklist to assess papers; and journals could adopt the standards as a requirement for publication.

“The scientific literature, especially in applied machine learning research, is full of avoidable errors,” Narayanan said. “And we want to help people. We want to keep honest people honest.”

The paper, “ Consensus-based recommendations for machine-learning-based science ,” published on May 1 in Science Advances, included the following authors:

Sayash Kapoor, Princeton University; Emily Cantrell, Princeton University; Kenny Peng, Cornell University; Thanh Hien (Hien) Pham, Princeton University; Christopher A. Bail, Duke University; Odd Erik Gundersen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Jake M. Hofman, Microsoft Research; Jessica Hullman, Northwestern University; Michael A. Lones, Heriot-Watt University; Momin M. Malik, Center for Digital Health, Mayo Clinic; Priyanka Nanayakkara, Northwestern; Russell A. Poldrack, Stanford University; Inioluwa Deborah Raji, University of California-Berkeley; Michael Roberts, University of Cambridge; Matthew J. Salganik, Princeton University; Marta Serra-Garcia, University of California-San Diego; Brandon M. Stewart, Princeton University; Gilles Vandewiele, Ghent University; and Arvind Narayanan, Princeton University.

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A long-awaited new policy broadens the type of regulated viruses, bacteria, fungi and toxins, including those that could threaten crops and livestock.

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By Carl Zimmer and Benjamin Mueller

The White House has unveiled tighter rules for research on potentially dangerous microbes and toxins, in an effort to stave off laboratory accidents that could unleash a pandemic.

The new policy, published Monday evening, arrives after years of deliberations by an expert panel and a charged public debate over whether Covid arose from an animal market or a laboratory in China.

A number of researchers worried that the government had been too lax about lab safety in the past, with some even calling for the creation of an independent agency to make decisions about risky experiments that could allow viruses, bacteria or fungi to spread quickly between people or become more deadly. But others warned against creating restrictive rules that would stifle valuable research without making people safer.

The debate grew sharper during the pandemic, as politicians raised questions about the origin of Covid. Those who suggested it came from a lab raised concerns about studies that tweaked pathogens to make them more dangerous — sometimes known as “gain of function” research.

The new policy, which applies to research funded by the federal government, strengthens the government’s oversight by replacing a short list of dangerous pathogens with broad categories into which more pathogens might fall. The policy pays attention not only to human pathogens, but also those that could threaten crops and livestock. And it provides more details about the kinds of experiments that would draw the attention of government regulators.

The rules will take effect in a year, giving government agencies and departments time to update their guidance to meet the new requirements.

“It’s a big and important step forward,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a longtime proponent of stricter safety regulations. “I think this policy is what any reasonable member of the public would expect is in place in terms of oversight of the world’s most transmissible and lethal organisms.”

Still, the policy does not embrace the most aggressive proposals made by lab safety proponents, such as creating an independent regulatory agency. It also makes exemptions for certain types of research, including disease surveillance and vaccine development. And some parts of the policy are recommendations rather than government-enforced requirements.

“It’s a moderate shift in policy, with a number of more significant signals about how the White House expects the issue to be treated moving forward,” said Nicholas Evans, an ethicist at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Experts have been waiting for the policy for more than a year. Still, some said they were surprised that it came out at such a politically fraught moment . “I wasn’t expecting anything, especially in an election year,” Dr. Evans said. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Under the new policy, scientists who want to carry out experiments will need to run their proposals past their universities or research institutions, which will to determine if the work poses a risk. Potentially dangerous proposals will then be reviewed by government agencies. The most scrutiny will go to experiments that could result in the most dangerous outcomes, such as those tweaking pathogens that could start a pandemic.

In a guidance document , the White House provided examples of research that would be expected to come under such scrutiny. In one case, they envisioned scientists trying to understand the evolutionary steps a pathogen needed to transmit more easily between humans. The researchers might try to produce a transmissible strain to study, for example, by repeatedly infecting human cells in petri dishes, allowing the pathogens to evolve more efficient ways to enter the cells.

Scientists who do not follow the new policy could become ineligible for federal funding for their work. Their entire institution may have its support for life science research cut off as well.

One of the weaknesses of existing policies is that they only apply to funding given out by the federal government. But for years , the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies have struggled with stagnant funding, leading some researchers to turn instead to private sources. In recent years, for example, crypto titans have poured money into pandemic prevention research.

The new policy does not give the government direct regulation of privately funded research. But it does say that research institutions that receive any federal money for life-science research should apply a similar oversight to scientists doing research with support from outside the government.

“This effectively limits them, as the N.I.H. does a lot of work everywhere in the world,” Dr. Evans said.

The new policy takes into account the advances in biotechnology that could lead to new risks. When pathogens become extinct, for example, they can be resurrected by recreating their genomes. Research on extinct pathogens will draw the highest levels of scrutiny.

Dr. Evans also noted that the new rules emphasize the risk that lab research can have on plants and animals. In the 20th century, the United States and Russia both carried out extensive research on crop-destroying pathogens such as wheat-killing fungi as part of their biological weapons programs. “It’s significant as a signal the White House is sending,” Dr. Evans said.

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard and a longtime critic of the government’s policy, gave the new one a grade of A minus. “I think it’s a lot clearer and more specific in many ways than the old guidance,” he said. But he was disappointed that the government will not provide detailed information to the public about the risky research it evaluates. “The transparency is far from transparent,” he said.

Scientists who have warned of the dangers of impeding useful virus research were also largely optimistic about the new rules.

Gigi Gronvall, a biosafety specialist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the policy’s success would depend on how federal health officials interpreted it, but applauded the way it recognized the value of research needed during a crisis, such as the current bird flu outbreak .

“I was cautiously optimistic in reading through it,” she said of the policy. “It seems like the orientation is for it to be thoughtfully implemented so it doesn’t have a chilling effect on needed research.”

Anice Lowen, an influenza virologist at Emory University, said the expanded scope of the new policy was “reasonable.” She said, for instance, that the decision not to create an entirely new review body helped to alleviate concerns about how unwieldy the process might become.

Still, she said, ambiguities in the instructions for assessing risks in certain experiments made it difficult to know how different university and health officials would police them.

“I think there will be more reviews carried out, and more research will be slowed down because of it,” she said.

Carl Zimmer covers news about science for The Times and writes the Origins column . More about Carl Zimmer

Benjamin Mueller reports on health and medicine. He was previously a U.K. correspondent in London and a police reporter in New York. More about Benjamin Mueller

ScienceDaily

A new mother's immune status varies with her feeding strategy

In one of the first studies of its kind, UC Santa Barbara researchers have found that the immune status of postpartum mothers shifts with how she feeds her baby. According to a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports , certain inflammatory proteins -- substances that are secreted as part of an immune response -- peak at different times of day, correlating with whether the mothers breastfeed, pump or formula-feed their babies.

"It's a great study; there are so many unanswered questions about maternal health in the postpartum period," said Amy Boddy, a human biologist and evolutionary theorist at UCSB's Department of Anthropology, and senior author of the paper. It's a rare deep look at immunity from the postpartum mother's perspective, which she hopes will become a springboard for future research.

Indeed, she said, much of the research on the effects of breastfeeding concentrate on the infant, with many findings that demonstrate benefits of breastfeeding to the baby's immunity and development. In the longer term, mothers who have breastfed also have a lower risk for developing certain cancers and diabetes.

But how about women within the crucial first months to years after childbirth? To investigate, Boddy, lead author and co-Principal Investigator Carmen Hové and team followed a population of 96 women in the Seattle area who had given birth within the previous six months and collected their saliva twice over a 24-hour period, once before going to bed, and again in the morning after waking. Because the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit and everyone was on lockdown, the researchers found themselves with an unexpectedly ideal experimental situation, in which the mothers' environments were heavily controlled for infections which could confound the immunity readings.

"It was kind of a perfect natural experiment, because we're looking at immune function and of the reports, no one was sick," Boddy said. The goal? To follow cyclical levels of five types of proteins (labeled CRP, IL-1β. IL-6, IL-8 and TNF-α) that indicate inflammation that is a marker of immune response.

"It's been shown before that breastfeeding has a suite of inflammatory responses to it," Boddy explained. "Inflammation isn't always a bad thing -- the breast is remodeling, functioning and doing things in the body." The proteins' diurnal patterns meant that generally speaking, concentrations are typically higher in the mornings and lower in the evenings. What the researchers were interested in was seeing out-of-the-ordinary levels in the normal ebb and flow of these proteins and how they matched up with the new mothers' infant feeding strategies.

For several proteins, there were no measurable deviances in the morning and evening levels no matter whether the mothers pumped or breastfed. However, for the C-reactive protein (CRP) the researchers found that levels peaked in the evenings for women who relied heavily on breastfeeding, reversing the normal diurnal trend.

"We expected that low rates of lactating would be associated with a relatively high morning peak in CRP and vice versa,"Hové said. "What we ended up finding is that among mothers who reported intensive lactation, via either breastfeeding or pumping, CRP was higher at nighttime." More research is needed to determine the precise effects of this unique pattern in breastfeeding or lactating mothers, she added.

"We don't know exactly what's going on here," Boddy said, "maybe not emptying your breast fully, leads to inflammation." Or maybe it's the other direction, and the inflammation is a healing response from pregnancy. Maybe the incomplete emptying is a change of behavior due to stress. Perhaps the stress is the result of interrupted sleep that comes with round-the-clock breastfeeding schedules. "We don't have the causal arrow of what's going on; it's just an association," she said. "This study shows that there is a unique immune profile, and we should study this in more detail."

What this study reveals is the true complexity of postpartum breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is part of an ongoing physiological negotiation between mother and the new baby which favors the infant, Boddy said.

"There's something in evolutionary biology called maternal-fetal conflict. The idea is, when you've two bodies in one maternal unit, that the baby always wants a little more than the mother has to give," she explained. This research dives into the gray area of postpartum health from the mother's perspective, particularly in the realm of breastfeeding and immunity.

Indeed, despite the ideal, long promoted by institutes such as the World Health Organization that "breast is best," the researchers found that even from their sample of educated, relatively affluent women, there existed a combination of lactation feeding strategies, highlighting challenges of exclusive at-the-nipple feeding.

"There's been a lot of pushback, mostly from lactating mothers, centered around time constraints. Our society doesn't make it easy for us to actually breastfeed and have lactational support," said Boddy, who nursed both her children as infants and found it "challenging to meet breastfeeding goals." In addition, the guidelines aren't clear on when breastfeeding should end. When do the physiological and other benefits diminish for the mother in this ongoing negotiation, which could last years? Could this information yield some insight on other trends, such as maternal mortality?

The researchers hope to study the topic more deeply, and on a more individual level, to tease out further patterns in postpartum health and breastfeeding, such as with the various hormones involved in lactation.

"I think this study has opened up more questions than what we've answered. What we would like to do is follow some of these same women throughout the course of their postpartum experience," Boddy said. "It's always been challenging to find the best way of feeding our babies and breastfeeding is so demanding."

  • Breastfeeding
  • Infant's Health
  • Immune System
  • Pregnancy and Childbirth
  • Teen Health
  • Medical Topics
  • Diseases and Conditions
  • Postpartum depression
  • Immune system
  • Chemotherapy
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Maternal bond
  • Natural killer cell

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of California - Santa Barbara . Original written by Sonia Fernandez. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference :

  • Carmen Hove, Kristine Joy Chua, Melanie Ann Martin, Madison Hubble, Amy M. Boddy. Variation in maternal lactation practices associated with changes in diurnal maternal inflammation . Scientific Reports , 2024; 14 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-54963-4

Cite This Page :

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Dear Colleague Letter: Non-Academic Research Internships for Graduate Students in Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies (Hydrogen INTERN) Supplemental Funding Opportunity

May 6, 2024

Dear Colleague:

Fostering the growth of a globally competitive and diverse research workforce and advancing the scientific and innovation skills of U.S. students are strategic objectives of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Supporting the development of a skilled workforce in energy efficiency and renewable energy is a strategic objective of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The NSF and DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) have established a partnership to support internship and training opportunities to meet these strategic objectives with a focus on hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. A new generation of skilled workforce is needed to drive research and development of hydrogen production, delivery, infrastructure, storage, fuel cells, and multiple end uses across transportation, industrial, and stationary power applications. For more information on DOE-EERE's priorities for hydrogen energy research, please see the DOE's Hydrogen Program Areas and the U.S. National Clean Hydrogen Strategy Roadmap .

This Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) describes this unique partnership with DOE EERE's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office (HFTO) and is aligned with and conforms with the NSF INTERN opportunity described in the Dear Colleague Letter: Non-Academic Research Internships for Graduate Students (INTERN) Supplemental Funding Opportunity . This DCL is referred to as the Hydrogen INTERN DCL.

SUPPLEMENTAL FUNDING OPPORTUNITY

NSF will consider supplemental funding requests in the broad area of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies that enable PIs (or Co-PIs) to request supplemental support of up to $55,000 and six months for graduate students supported on active NSF grants with the following goals:

  • To provide graduate students with the opportunity to augment their research assistantships or NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) fellowships with research internship activities and training opportunities that will complement their academic research training.
  • To allow graduate students to pursue new activities aimed at acquiring professional development experience that will enhance their preparation for multiple career pathways after graduation.
  • To encourage the participation of the full spectrum of diverse talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

DESCRIPTION OF THE ACTIVITIES SUPPORTED

The PI/co-PI of an active NSF award may request supplemental funding for one or more graduate students to gain knowledge, skills, training, and experiences in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and their application areas.

Internship hosts include, but are not limited to:

  • Private sector companies, laboratories, or industry research and development groups.
  • Start-up businesses such as, but not limited to, those funded through the NSF's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
  • Department of Energy Laboratories, other government agencies (all levels), and National Laboratories.
  • Museums, science centers, and other informal learning settings that educate the public.
  • Policy think-tanks.
  • Non-profit organizations.

Prior to submission, PIs are encouraged to discuss possible INTERN supplements with the cognizant NSF Program Director Points of Contact listed in this DCL to ensure the proposed internship and its topic are a good fit for this DCL. It is expected that the graduate student and the PI on the NSF grant will work together to identify experiences that add the most educational value for the graduate student through activities that are not already available at the student's academic institution. Further, it is expected that the internship will be research-focused and will be on-site at the host organization unless a specific exception to this is granted by the cognizant Program Director due to extenuating circumstances.

ELIGIBILITY

To be eligible for this opportunity, graduate students must have completed at least one academic year in their graduate program (master's or doctoral) prior to commencement of the proposed INTERN activity and be making satisfactory progress toward completion of their degree.

SUPPLEMENTAL FUNDING REQUEST PREPARATION INSTRUCTIONS

Information about requesting supplemental support is contained in the NSF PAPPG ), Chapter VI.E.5. In addition to the PAPPG requirements for supplemental support, the following materials must be included.

  • A two-page summary that describes the internship
  • A one-page personal statement from the graduate student describing career goals, accomplishments, and how the activity will better prepare the individual to enter the workforce.
  • Research summary to include contribution(s) to research discipline
  • Institution(s)
  • Year of study (1st year, 2nd year, etc.)
  • Completed coursework
  • Employment and volunteer/outreach history
  • Publications (accepted only)
  • Other information relevant to the proposed internship
  • A letter of collaboration from an authorized official at the host organization that describes the internship opportunity and mentoring the student will experience during the internship. The letter should include a statement confirming that neither the graduate student nor the PI has a financial interest in the organization hosting the internship.
  • An endorsement letter from the PI that confirms that the student meets the eligibility requirements specified in this DCL. The letter must describe how the proposed internship activity will contribute to the student's graduate education experience and how it may impact time to degree.
  • The NSF recipient and Host Organization must agree in advance as to how intellectual property (IP) rights will be handled. A signed agreement on IP (including publication and patent rights) must be submitted either as a supplementary document or, via email to the cognizant Program Director after submission of the supplementary funding request and prior to the award of the supplemental funding. NSF is responsible neither for the agreement reached nor the IP information exchanged between the NSF recipient and Host Organization.
  • A budget and budget justification.

SUPPLEMENTAL FUNDING AMOUNT

The total amount of funding requested must not exceed $55,000 per student per six-month period. NSF plans to fund up to approximately 10 or more supplements in each fiscal year starting with FY 2024, depending on availability of funds.

ALLOWABLE COSTS UNDER THIS DCL

Funds may be used to support travel, tuition and fees, health insurance, additional stipend, and temporary relocation costs for the graduate student. Additional stipends are not allowed for GRFP fellows "on tenure" (currently receiving a GRFP stipend), but a stipend will be considered for fellows "on reserve" (not currently receiving a GRFP stipend) equal to the monthly rate of the GRFP stipend. Up to $2,500 may be used for the PI or the graduate research fellow's advisor to travel to work with the host organization in co-mentoring the student during the internship. Up to $2,500 may be used for materials and supplies to support the student during the internship. Travel costs must be allocated in the budget request for the graduate student to travel once to Washington DC, to present the outcomes of the INTERN project at the DOE's Annual Merit Review meeting. The recipient is permitted to request indirect costs in accordance with their approved/negotiated indirect cost rate. The total requested budget cannot exceed the limits listed under the "Supplement funding amount" section above. Note: Spousal and dependent travel are not supported.

PERIOD OF SUPPORT

The supplement funding will provide up to six months of support for an internship. Up to two supplemental funding requests may be submitted on a grant per student. This would allow the student up to two internship periods of up to six months each (i.e., a maximum of 12 months per student).

Supplemental funding requests may be submitted at any time with a target date of June 15 for Fiscal Year 2024 and April 15 for future Fiscal Years.

SUBMISSION & REVIEW

Requests for supplemental funding must be submitted electronically via Research.gov. A PI or co-PI on an NSF award must contact his/her cognizant program director prior to submission. GRFP INTERN supplement requests are submitted by the GRFP PI, not by the GRFP fellow or the fellow's research advisor. Requests for supplemental funding submitted in response to this DCL will be reviewed internally by NSF Program Officers. All supplements are subject to (a) the availability of funds, and (b) merit review of the supplemental funding request.

SPECIAL AWARD CONDITION

Intellectual Property Rights: Internships under this DCL are considered equivalent to traineeships. The National Science Foundation claims no rights to any inventions or writings that might result from its traineeship awards. However, trainees should be aware that NSF, another Federal agency, or some private party may acquire such rights through other support for particular research. Also, trainees should note their obligation to include an Acknowledgment and Disclaimer in any publication.

POLICY OR CODE ADDRESSING HARASSMENT

Recipients are required to have a policy or code of conduct that addresses sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, and sexual assault. The recipient should work with the Host Organization to ensure that the Host Organization also has a policy or code of conduct that addresses sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, and sexual assault including reporting and complaint procedures and to confirm that such policy both covers and protects INTERN students interacting with the Host Organization. The recipient should also coordinate with the Host Organization to provide orientation to graduate students to cover expectations of behavior to ensure a safe and respectful environment, and to review the recipient and host organization's policy or code of conduct addressing sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, and sexual assault, including reporting and complaint procedures. For additional information, see the NSF policies at https://new.nsf.gov/stopping-harassment .

Susan Marqusee, Assistant Director Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO)

Dilma Da Silva, Acting Assistant Director Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE)

James L. Moore III, Assistant Director Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EDU)

Susan Margulies, Assistant Director Directorate for Engineering (ENG)

Alexandra Isern, Assistant Director Directorate for Geosciences (GEO)

C. Denise Caldwell, Acting Assistant Director Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS)

Alicia Knoedler, Office Head Office of Integrative Activities (OIA)

Kendra Sharp, Office Head Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE)

Kaye Husbands Fealing, Assistant Director Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE)

Erwin Gianchandani, Assistant Director Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnership (TIP)

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Texas A&M AgriLife's digital magazine and newsroom

Dara Wald honored as Andrew Carnegie Fellow

Texas a&m college of agriculture and life sciences professor among 2024 honorees.

May 7, 2024 - by Susan Himes

Dara Wald, Ph.D., has been named to the 2024 class of the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program by the Carnegie Corporation of New York .

a scientific research is

Wald is a tenured Texas A&M  College of Agriculture and Life Sciences  associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications , Bryan-College Station. She is also a research fellow at the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy .

“This is a momentous honor for Dr. Wald,” said Texas A&M University provost and executive vice president Alan Sams, Ph.D. “The Carnegie Fellowship is one of the most prestigious fellowships given to scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and we are very proud of her work. Her research clearly demonstrates a relevant and trailblazing area of study with profound real-world implications. It is a remarkable and well-deserved honor.”

Wald was one of 28 distinguished scholars selected from over 360 nominations for the honor. According to the Carnegie Corporation, each winner will receive up to $200,000 for research that seeks to understand how and why society has become polarized and how it can strengthen the forces of cohesion to fortify democracy.

Wald was sitting at her office desk on a Friday when she got the email.

“I was completely shocked,” she said. “For academics, this time of the year is such an intense period. The semester is wrapping up, and everybody’s tired. To get this news, particularly at this time of year, is thrilling. I am very excited about the possibilities this creates for my research program.”

Wald’s work demonstrates the value and need for interdisciplinary scholarship to address polarized perspectives of agricultural and environmental issues.

“The importance of Dr. Wald’s work cannot be overstated,” said Jeffrey W. Savell, Ph.D., vice chancellor and dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Her ongoing research engages in public conversations throughout agricultural, life and environmental sciences, opening key dialogue about public perceptions of complex science issues.”

Award will further Wald’s research

The Carnegie Fellowship award will allow Wald to dig deeper into questions she and her team have been asking as part of her National Science Foundation funded Faculty Early Career Development Program , CAREER, award on public perceptions of science and place-based conservation. Wald’s research highlights critical areas such as trust, credibility and collaboration in natural resource contexts.

“Dr. Wald’s work asks vital questions about how scientists can build trust and emphasize their commitment to the public good,” said Matt Baker, Ph.D., head of the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications, Bryan-College Station. “These questions are critical for our understanding of public perceptions of science and policy.”

Wald’s research aims to maximize the benefits of scientific discovery for people and the environment. She does this by examining the causes and consequences of conflict and collaboration over natural resources and identifying effective communication strategies. The research also examines how public perceptions of science shape attitudes toward environmental and agricultural policies and programs.

“My research focuses on water, wildlife, land and energy,” she said. “These are fundamental things we all need for life. Science can help us protect our communities from floods, improve agricultural production and guard us from emerging health issues.”

Wald said if a community is not getting the information, however, or the messages do not reach or appeal to that community, then that science stays in an ivory tower.

“In general, people pay more attention to information from a credible source they have a relationship with,” she said. “But credibility means different things to different people. Understanding what credibility means to different audiences will help bridge the divide.”

In addition to diving deeper into her current research, gathered from interviews with landowners, land managers and producers in rural areas, Wald said the award will enable her to expand this work to look at polarization about scientific credibility and develop a book proposal about those research results.

“There’s a need to understand ways to find common ground and move together as a force,” she said.

Addressing political polarization

The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program was established in 2015 to support humanities and social sciences research. As of last year, it had 243 fellowships, totaling an investment of $48 million. Last year marked the start of a new program phase with the exclusive theme of political polarization in the U.S.

“The fragility of American democracy has been exposed in recent years to a degree that is quite frightening,” said Dame Louise Richardson, Carnegie Corporation of New York president. “The driving force appears to be the increasing polarization of American politics and, by extension, American society. We would like to understand this polarization, what caused it, what perpetuates it, and above all, how it might be mitigated, or even reversed, by strengthening the forces of cohesion in our society.”

Through the research of the Andrew Carnegie fellows, the corporation seeks to raise awareness of political polarization in the philanthropic sector, guide public policy and help inform the foundation’s grantmaking in democracy, education, and international peace and security.

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Blacklisted Chinese tech giant is covertly funding scientific research at U.S. universities through a nonprofit

Ren Zhengfei

Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese telecommunications giant blacklisted by the U.S., is secretly funding cutting-edge research at American universities including Harvard through an independent Washington-based foundation.

Huawei is the sole funder of a research competition that has awarded millions of dollars since its inception in 2022 and attracted hundreds of proposals from scientists around the world, including those at top U.S. universities that have banned their researchers from working with the company, according to documents and people familiar with the matter.

The competition is administered by the  Optica Foundation , an arm of the nonprofit professional society Optica, whose members’ research on light underpins technologies such as communications, biomedical diagnostics and lasers.

The foundation “shall not be required to designate Huawei as the funding source or program sponsor” of the competition and “the existence and content of this Agreement and the relationship between the Parties shall also be considered Confidential Information,” says a nonpublic document reviewed by Bloomberg.

The findings reveal one strategy Shenzhen, China-based Huawei is using to remain at the forefront of funding international research despite a web of  US restrictions  imposed over the past several years in response to concerns that its technology could be used by Beijing as a spy tool.

Applicants and university officials contacted by Bloomberg as well as one of the competition’s judges said they hadn’t known of Huawei’s role in funding the program until they were asked by a reporter. A cross-section of applicants interviewed by Bloomberg said they believed the money came from the foundation and not a foreign entity.

There are 11 opportunities on the Optica Foundation website  listing  “Early Career Prizes & Fellowships.” All but the Huawei-funded competition — which awards $1 million per year, or twenty times the next most-lucrative annual cash prize on the site — list individual and corporate financial contributors. 

A Huawei spokesman said the company and the Optica Foundation created the competition to support global research and promote academic communication. The spokesman said Huawei’s name was kept private to keep the contest from being seen as promotional and that there was no ill intent.

Liz Rogan, Optica’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that some foundation donors “prefer to remain anonymous, including U.S. donors” and that “there is nothing unusual about this practice.”

Rogan said the Huawei donation had been reviewed by outside legal counsel and won the approval of the foundation’s board. “We are completely transparent with the funding and support of the Foundation programs with the Optica Foundation Board, the Optica Board and staff,” she said.

The secretive effort in Washington stands in contrast with public initiatives by Huawei in several European countries. France and Germany, for example, are home to company-branded scientific hubs despite a European Commission recommendation that the company’s equipment be barred from member state networks over security risks.

Optica Foundation’s 2023 annual report acknowledges Huawei in a section listing “highest-level donors” who have given more than $1 million since the organization’s founding more than two decades ago. US tech giants Google and Meta Platforms Inc. are among those in the second-highest tier of donors who have given $200,000 or more.

The report does not specify when any of the donors gave money, what it was used for, or how much they gave. 

Fearful of losing funding from federal sources including the Pentagon and National Science Foundation because of security concerns, many U.S. universities have told researchers in recent years to cut ties with Huawei. Schools have also beefed up policies requiring academics to disclose foreign funding.

Within U.S. Rules

The foundation’s secret funding arrangement likely doesn’t violate U.S. Commerce Department regulations blocking people and organizations from sharing technology with Huawei, said Kevin Wolf, a partner at Akin who specializes in export controls.

That’s because such rules don’t apply to the type of research the competition is soliciting — science that’s meant to be published, Wolf said. If Huawei were subject to Treasury Department sanctions, however, the activity probably wouldn’t be legal, he said.

Research security specialists said the lack of transparency underlying the arrangement nonetheless violates the spirit of university and US funding-agency policies requiring researchers to disclose whether they’re receiving foreign money. 

They also said some of the resulting research is likely to have both defense and commercial relevance. Topics the Optica Foundation singles out in an online post as being “ of interest ” include “undersea and space-based solutions for the global communications grid” and “high-sensitivity optical sensors and detectors.”

“It’s a bad look for a prestigious research foundation to be anonymously accepting money from a Chinese company that raises so many national security concerns for the US government,” said James Mulvenon, a defense contractor who has worked on research security issues and co-authored a seminal book on Chinese industrial espionage. 

Jeff Stoff, founder of the nonprofit Center for Research Security & Integrity, said funding the competition could effectively let Huawei influence “what research projects it would like to see without having to contract directly with academic institutions.” He said the company could use the arrangement to recruit talent by sponsoring applicants of interest and acquiring intellectual property from their research in the future.

Texas A&M University’s Chief Research Security Officer Kevin Gamache said the school had not known of Huawei’s involvement in the competition before being contacted by Bloomberg. The university then looked into the matter and learned that two of its researchers had applied for awards, both unaware of the source of the competition’s funding.

“We have processes that would identify and prevent associations with Huawei unless they were being heavily obfuscated like this,” Gamache said.

At least one applicant to the competition came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which  in 2019 said  it would cease accepting new engagements with Huawei. An MIT spokeswoman declined to comment beyond pointing out the university’s policy.

Universities’ Winners 

The Optica Foundation required universities whose researchers were awarded funding to accept the money on the winners’ behalf. Several of them, including Harvard, the University of Southern California, and Vanderbilt as well as The University of British Columbia and Wilfrid Laurier in Canada, declined to comment on whether they would take action in response to Bloomberg’s findings.

A Harvard spokesman said the university has a policy against working with Huawei. 

Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who’s chairman of the Optica Foundation board that Optica’s CEO said had approved the Huawei arrangement, said in a statement: “As the Foundation grows and continues to explore avenues for broadening our programming, we are committed to ensuring clear transparency policies related to our funding sources.”

A spokesman for USC, which has had two winners over the past two years, said it follows US regulations on reporting foreign gifts and contracts. “There were no indicators to suspect any foreign involvement at the time the payments were made, and we similarly have no such indications at present,” according to a statement provided by the spokesman. 

USC engineering professor Alan Willner, who has been a judge for the competition, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the University of British Columbia said the school’s relationship is with the Optica Foundation and that neither the university nor its winning applicant had been aware at the time the prize was awarded that it was funded by a third party.

Representatives from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Arizona, which has one of the top optics schools in the US, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment about Huawei funding their winning applicants.Play Video

Huawei Optical Expert

Huawei became a member of the foundation’s parent organization Optica in late 2021 right as it committed to sponsoring the competition, according to a person familiar with the matter. It plans to fund the event for a decade, according to the nonpublic documents reviewed by Bloomberg, which would mean awarding a total of $10 million based on past disbursements.

The foundation is currently accepting proposals for the 2024 application cycle, which runs through May 21, with plans to grant 10 winners $100,000 each for the third year in a row.

Huawei has one executive on the competition’s 10-person selection committee. The Hong Kong-based scientist, Xiang Liu, is Huawei’s Chief Optical Standards Expert, according to his LinkedIn profile.

In 2021 he published a book about 5G communications technology after spending more than seven years at Huawei’s US unit Futurewei, the profile says. Prior to earning a doctorate at Cornell, Liu studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physics, which operates under the State Council of China. 

When the Optica competition kicked off in 2022, Liu in a LinkedIn post thanked the foundation “for this great initiative” and said he would be serving on the selection panel. Chad Stark, Optica Foundation’s executive director and the signatory on the documents seen by Bloomberg, thanked Liu for sharing information about the competition. He didn’t acknowledge Huawei’s role as the sole funder.

Last month, Liu was advertised as a moderator of a virtual Optica session about “the cutting-edge technologies revolutionizing connectivity between data centers.” While Optica listed the panelists’ employers — all major US tech companies — in event marketing materials, it described Liu only as a fellow at Optica and another professional society.

Liu deferred questions to Huawei, and Stark didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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1 Science and scientific research

What is research? Depending on who you ask, you will likely get very different answers to this seemingly innocuous question. Some people will say that they routinely research different online websites to find the best place to buy the goods or services they want. Television news channels supposedly conduct research in the form of viewer polls on topics of public interest such as forthcoming elections or government-funded projects. Undergraduate students research on the Internet to find the information they need to complete assigned projects or term papers. Postgraduate students working on research projects for a professor may see research as collecting or analysing data related to their project. Businesses and consultants research different potential solutions to remedy organisational problems such as a supply chain bottleneck or to identify customer purchase patterns. However, none of the above can be considered ‘scientific research’ unless: it contributes to a body of science, and it follows the scientific method. This chapter will examine what these terms mean.

What is science? To some, science refers to difficult high school or university-level courses such as physics, chemistry, and biology meant only for the brightest students. To others, science is a craft practiced by scientists in white coats using specialised equipment in their laboratories. Etymologically, the word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin word scientia meaning knowledge. Science refers to a systematic and organised body of knowledge in any area of inquiry that is acquired using ‘the scientific method’ (the scientific method is described further below). Science can be grouped into two broad categories: natural science and social science. Natural science is the science of naturally occurring objects or phenomena, such as light, objects, matter, earth, celestial bodies, or the human body. Natural sciences can be further classified into physical sciences, earth sciences, life sciences, and others. Physical sciences consist of disciplines such as physics (the science of physical objects), chemistry (the science of matter), and astronomy (the science of celestial objects). Earth sciences consist of disciplines such as geology (the science of the earth). Life sciences include disciplines such as biology (the science of human bodies) and botany (the science of plants). In contrast, social science is the science of people or collections of people, such as groups, firms, societies, or economies, and their individual or collective behaviours. Social sciences can be classified into disciplines such as psychology (the science of human behaviours), sociology (the science of social groups), and economics (the science of firms, markets, and economies).

The natural sciences are different from the social sciences in several respects. The natural sciences are very precise, accurate, deterministic, and independent of the person making the scientific observations. For instance, a scientific experiment in physics, such as measuring the speed of sound through a certain media or the refractive index of water, should always yield the exact same results, irrespective of the time or place of the experiment, or the person conducting the experiment. If two students conducting the same physics experiment obtain two different values of these physical properties, then it generally means that one or both of those students must be in error. However, the same cannot be said for the social sciences, which tend to be less accurate, deterministic, or unambiguous. For instance, if you measure a person’s happiness using a hypothetical instrument, you may find that the same person is more happy or less happy (or sad) on different days and sometimes, at different times on the same day. One’s happiness may vary depending on the news that person received that day or on the events that transpired earlier during that day. Furthermore, there is not a single instrument or metric that can accurately measure a person’s happiness. Hence, one instrument may calibrate a person as being ‘more happy’ while a second instrument may find that the same person is ‘less happy’ at the same instant in time. In other words, there is a high degree of measurement error in the social sciences and there is considerable uncertainty and little agreement on social science policy decisions. For instance, you will not find many disagreements among natural scientists on the speed of light or the speed of the earth around the sun, but you will find numerous disagreements among social scientists on how to solve a social problem such as reduce global terrorism or rescue an economy from a recession. Any student studying the social sciences must be cognisant of and comfortable with handling higher levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, and error that come with such sciences, which merely reflects the high variability of social objects.

Sciences can also be classified based on their purpose. Basic sciences , also called pure sciences, are those that explain the most basic objects and forces, relationships between them, and laws governing them. Examples include physics, mathematics, and biology. Applied sciences , also called practical sciences, are sciences that apply scientific knowledge from basic sciences in a physical environment. For instance, engineering is an applied science that applies the laws of physics and chemistry for practical applications such as building stronger bridges or fuel efficient combustion engines, while medicine is an applied science that applies the laws of biology to solving human ailments. Both basic and applied sciences are required for human development. However, applied science cannot stand on its own right, but instead relies on basic sciences for its progress. Of course, industry and private enterprises tend to focus more on applied sciences given their practical value, while universities study both basic and applied sciences.

Scientific knowledge

The purpose of science is to create scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge refers to a generalised body of laws and theories for explaining a phenomenon or behaviour of interest that is acquired using the scientific method. Laws are observed patterns of phenomena or behaviours, while theories are systematic explanations of the underlying phenomenon or behaviour. For instance, in physics, the Newtonian Laws of Motion describe what happens when an object is in a state of rest or motion (Newton’s First Law), what force is needed to move a stationary object or stop a moving object (Newton’s Second Law), and what happens when two objects collide (Newton’s Third Law). Collectively, the three laws constitute the basis of classical mechanics—a theory of moving objects. Likewise, the theory of optics explains the properties of light and how it behaves in different media, electromagnetic theory explains the properties of electricity and how to generate it, quantum mechanics explains the properties of subatomic particles, and thermodynamics explains the properties of energy and mechanical work. An introductory university level textbook in physics will likely contain separate chapters devoted to each of these theories. Similar theories are also available in social sciences. For instance, cognitive dissonance theory in psychology explains how people react when their observations of an event are different from what they expected of that event, general deterrence theory explains why some people engage in improper or criminal behaviours, such as to illegally download music or commit software piracy, and the theory of planned behaviour explains how people make conscious reasoned choices in their everyday lives.

The goal of scientific research is to discover laws and postulate theories that can explain natural or social phenomena, or in other words, build scientific knowledge. It is important to understand that this knowledge may be imperfect or even quite far from the truth. Sometimes, there may not be a single universal truth, but rather an equilibrium of ‘multiple truths.’ We must understand that the theories upon which scientific knowledge is based are only explanations of a particular phenomenon as suggested by a scientist. As such, there may be good or poor explanations depending on the extent to which those explanations fit well with reality, and consequently, there may be good or poor theories. The progress of science is marked by our progression over time from poorer theories to better theories, through better observations using more accurate instruments and more informed logical reasoning.

We arrive at scientific laws or theories through a process of logic and evidence. Logic (theory) and evidence (observations) are the two, and only two, pillars upon which scientific knowledge is based. In science, theories and observations are inter-related and cannot exist without each other. Theories provide meaning and significance to what we observe, and observations help validate or refine existing theory or construct new theory. Any other means of knowledge acquisition, such as faith or authority cannot be considered science.

Scientific research

Given that theories and observations are the two pillars of science, scientific research operates at two levels: a theoretical level and an empirical level. The theoretical level is concerned with developing abstract concepts about a natural or social phenomenon and relationships between those concepts (i.e., build ‘theories’), while the empirical level is concerned with testing the theoretical concepts and relationships to see how well they reflect our observations of reality, with the goal of ultimately building better theories. Over time, a theory becomes more and more refined (i.e., fits the observed reality better), and the science gains maturity. Scientific research involves continually moving back and forth between theory and observations. Both theory and observations are essential components of scientific research. For instance, relying solely on observations for making inferences and ignoring theory is not considered valid scientific research.

Depending on a researcher’s training and interest, scientific inquiry may take one of two possible forms: inductive or deductive. In inductive research , the goal of a researcher is to infer theoretical concepts and patterns from observed data. In deductive research , the goal of the researcher is to test concepts and patterns known from theory using new empirical data. Hence, inductive research is also called theory-building research, and deductive research is theory-testing research. Note here that the goal of theory testing is not just to test a theory, but possibly to refine, improve, and extend it. Figure 1.1 depicts the complementary nature of inductive and deductive research. Note that inductive and deductive research are two halves of the research cycle that constantly iterates between theory and observations. You cannot do inductive or deductive research if you are not familiar with both the theory and data components of research. Naturally, a complete researcher is one who can traverse the entire research cycle and can handle both inductive and deductive research.

It is important to understand that theory-building (inductive research) and theory-testing (deductive research) are both critical for the advancement of science. Elegant theories are not valuable if they do not match with reality. Likewise, mountains of data are also useless until they can contribute to the construction of meaningful theories. Rather than viewing these two processes in a circular relationship, as shown in Figure 1.1, perhaps they can be better viewed as a helix, with each iteration between theory and data contributing to better explanations of the phenomenon of interest and better theories. Though both inductive and deductive research are important for the advancement of science, it appears that inductive (theory-building) research is more valuable when there are few prior theories or explanations, while deductive (theory-testing) research is more productive when there are many competing theories of the same phenomenon and researchers are interested in knowing which theory works best and under what circumstances.

The cycle of research

Theory building and theory testing are particularly difficult in the social sciences, given the imprecise nature of the theoretical concepts, inadequate tools to measure them, and the presence of many unaccounted for factors that can also influence the phenomenon of interest. It is also very difficult to refute theories that do not work. For instance, Karl Marx’s theory of communism as an effective means of economic production withstood for decades, before it was finally discredited as being inferior to capitalism in promoting economic growth and social welfare. Erstwhile communist economies like the Soviet Union and China eventually moved toward more capitalistic economies characterised by profit-maximising private enterprises. However, the recent collapse of the mortgage and financial industries in the United States demonstrates that capitalism also has its flaws and is not as effective in fostering economic growth and social welfare as previously presumed. Unlike theories in the natural sciences, social science theories are rarely perfect, which provides numerous opportunities for researchers to improve those theories or build their own alternative theories.

Conducting scientific research, therefore, requires two sets of skills—theoretical and methodological—needed to operate in the theoretical and empirical levels respectively. Methodological skills (‘know-how’) are relatively standard, invariant across disciplines, and easily acquired through doctoral programs. However, theoretical skills (‘know-what’) are considerably harder to master, require years of observation and reflection, and are tacit skills that cannot be ‘taught’ but rather learned though experience. All of the greatest scientists in the history of mankind, such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Niels Bohr, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Simon, were master theoreticians, and they are remembered for the theories they postulated that transformed the course of science. Methodological skills are needed to be an ordinary researcher, but theoretical skills are needed to be an extraordinary researcher!

Scientific method

In the preceding sections, we described science as knowledge acquired through a scientific method. So what exactly is the ‘scientific method’? Scientific method refers to a standardised set of techniques for building scientific knowledge, such as how to make valid observations, how to interpret results, and how to generalise those results. The scientific method allows researchers to independently and impartially test pre-existing theories and prior findings, and subject them to open debate, modifications, or enhancements. The scientific method must satisfy four key characteristics:

Replicability : Others should be able to independently replicate or repeat a scientific study and obtain similar, if not identical, results. Precision : Theoretical concepts, which are often hard to measure, must be defined with such precision that others can use those definitions to measure those concepts and test that theory. Falsifiability : A theory must be stated in such a way that it can be disproven. Theories that cannot be tested or falsified are not scientific theories and any such knowledge is not scientific knowledge. A theory that is specified in imprecise terms or whose concepts are not accurately measureable cannot be tested, and is therefore not scientific. Sigmund Freud’s ideas on psychoanalysis fall into this category and are therefore not considered a ‘theory’, even though psychoanalysis may have practical utility in treating certain types of ailments. Parsimony: When there are multiple different explanations of a phenomenon, scientists must always accept the simplest or logically most economical explanation. This concept is called parsimony or ‘Occam’s razor’. Parsimony prevents scientists from pursuing overly complex or outlandish theories with an endless number of concepts and relationships that may explain a little bit of everything but nothing in particular. Any branch of inquiry that does not allow the scientific method to test its basic laws or theories cannot be called ‘science’. For instance, theology (the study of religion) is not science because theological ideas—such as the presence of God—cannot be tested by independent observers using a logical, confirmable, repeatable, and scrutinisable. Similarly, arts, music, literature, humanities, and law are also not considered science, even though they are creative and worthwhile endeavours in their own right.

The scientific method, as applied to social sciences, includes a variety of research approaches, tools, and techniques for collecting and analysing qualitative or quantitative data. These methods include laboratory experiments, field surveys, case research, ethnographic research, action research, and so forth. Much of this book is devoted to learning about these different methods. However, recognise that the scientific method operates primarily at the empirical level of research, i.e., how to make observations and analyse these observations. Very little of this method is directly pertinent to the theoretical level, which is really the more challenging part of scientific research.

Types of scientific research

Depending on the purpose of research, scientific research projects can be grouped into three types: exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory. Exploratory research is often conducted in new areas of inquiry, where the goals of the research are: to scope out the magnitude or extent of a particular phenomenon, problem, or behaviour, to generate some initial ideas (or ‘hunches’) about that phenomenon, or to test the feasibility of undertaking a more extensive study regarding that phenomenon. For instance, if the citizens of a country are generally dissatisfied with governmental policies during an economic recession, exploratory research may be directed at measuring the extent of citizens’ dissatisfaction, understanding how such dissatisfaction is manifested, such as the frequency of public protests, and the presumed causes of such dissatisfaction, such as ineffective government policies in dealing with inflation, interest rates, unemployment, or higher taxes. Such research may include examination of publicly reported figures, such as estimates of economic indicators, such as gross domestic product (GDP), unemployment, and consumer price index (CPI), as archived by third-party sources, obtained through interviews of experts, eminent economists, or key government officials, and/or derived from studying historical examples of dealing with similar problems. This research may not lead to a very accurate understanding of the target problem, but may be worthwhile in scoping out the nature and extent of the problem and serve as a useful precursor to more in-depth research.

Descriptive research is directed at making careful observations and detailed documentation of a phenomenon of interest. These observations must be based on the scientific method (i.e., must be replicable, precise, etc.), and therefore, are more reliable than casual observations by untrained people. Examples of descriptive research are tabulation of demographic statistics by the United States Census Bureau or employment statistics by the Bureau of Labor, who use the same or similar instruments for estimating employment by sector or population growth by ethnicity over multiple employment surveys or censuses. If any changes are made to the measuring instruments, estimates are provided with and without the changed instrumentation to allow the readers to make a fair before-and-after comparison regarding population or employment trends. Other descriptive research may include chronicling ethnographic reports of gang activities among adolescent youth in urban populations, the persistence or evolution of religious, cultural, or ethnic practices in select communities, and the role of technologies such as Twitter and instant messaging in the spread of democracy movements in Middle Eastern countries.

Explanatory research seeks explanations of observed phenomena, problems, or behaviours. While descriptive research examines the what, where, and when of a phenomenon, explanatory research seeks answers to questions of why and how. It attempts to ‘connect the dots’ in research, by identifying causal factors and outcomes of the target phenomenon. Examples include understanding the reasons behind adolescent crime or gang violence, with the goal of prescribing strategies to overcome such societal ailments. Most academic or doctoral research belongs to the explanation category, though some amount of exploratory and/or descriptive research may also be needed during initial phases of academic research. Seeking explanations for observed events requires strong theoretical and interpretation skills, along with intuition, insights, and personal experience. Those who can do it well are also the most prized scientists in their disciplines.

History of scientific thought

Before closing this chapter, it may be interesting to go back in history and see how science has evolved over time and identify the key scientific minds in this evolution. Although instances of scientific progress have been documented over many centuries, the terms ‘science’, ’scientists’, and the ‘scientific method’ were coined only in the nineteenth century. Prior to this time, science was viewed as a part of philosophy, and coexisted with other branches of philosophy such as logic, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, although the boundaries between some of these branches were blurred.

In the earliest days of human inquiry, knowledge was usually recognised in terms of theological precepts based on faith. This was challenged by Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates during the third century BC, who suggested that the fundamental nature of being and the world can be understood more accurately through a process of systematic logical reasoning called rationalism . In particular, Aristotle’s classic work Metaphysics (literally meaning ‘beyond physical [existence]’) separated theology (the study of Gods) from ontology (the study of being and existence) and universal science (the study of first principles, upon which logic is based). Rationalism (not to be confused with ‘rationality’) views reason as the source of knowledge or justification, and suggests that the criterion of truth is not sensory but rather intellectual and deductive, often derived from a set of first principles or axioms (such as Aristotle’s ‘law of non-contradiction’).

The next major shift in scientific thought occurred during the sixteenth century, when British philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) suggested that knowledge can only be derived from observations in the real world. Based on this premise, Bacon emphasised knowledge acquisition as an empirical activity (rather than as a reasoning activity), and developed empiricism as an influential branch of philosophy. Bacon’s works led to the popularisation of inductive methods of scientific inquiry, the development of the ‘scientific method’ (originally called the ‘Baconian method’), consisting of systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation, and may have even sowed the seeds of atheism or the rejection of theological precepts as ‘unobservable’.

Empiricism continued to clash with rationalism throughout the Middle Ages, as philosophers sought the most effective way of gaining valid knowledge. French philosopher Rene Descartes sided with the rationalists, while British philosophers John Locke and David Hume sided with the empiricists. Other scientists, such as Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton, attempted to fuse the two ideas into natural philosophy (the philosophy of nature), to focus specifically on understanding nature and the physical universe, which is considered to be the precursor of the natural sciences. Galileo (1564–1642) was perhaps the first to state that the laws of nature are mathematical, and contributed to the field of astronomy through an innovative combination of experimentation and mathematics.

In the eighteenth century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant sought to resolve the dispute between empiricism and rationalism in his book Critique of pure r eason by arguing that experiences are purely subjective and processing them using pure reason without first delving into the subjective nature of experiences will lead to theoretical illusions. Kant’s ideas led to the development of German idealism , which inspired later development of interpretive techniques such as phenomenology, hermeneutics, and critical social theory.

At about the same time, French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), founder of the discipline of sociology, attempted to blend rationalism and empiricism in a new doctrine called positivism . He suggested that theory and observations have circular dependence on each other. While theories may be created via reasoning, they are only authentic if they can be verified through observations. The emphasis on verification started the separation of modern science from philosophy and metaphysics and further development of the ‘scientific method’ as the primary means of validating scientific claims. Comte’s ideas were expanded by Emile Durkheim in his development of sociological positivism (positivism as a foundation for social research) and Ludwig Wittgenstein in logical positivism.

In the early twentieth century, strong accounts of positivism were rejected by interpretive sociologists (antipositivists) belonging to the German idealism school of thought. Positivism was typically equated with quantitative research methods such as experiments and surveys and without any explicit philosophical commitments, while antipositivism employed qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews and participant observation. Even practitioners of positivism, such as American sociologist Paul Lazarsfield who pioneered large-scale survey research and statistical techniques for analysing survey data, acknowledged potential problems of observer bias and structural limitations in positivist inquiry. In response, antipositivists emphasised that social actions must be studied though interpretive means based upon understanding the meaning and purpose that individuals attach to their personal actions, which inspired Georg Simmel’s work on symbolic interactionism, Max Weber’s work on ideal types, and Edmund Husserl’s work on phenomenology.

In the mid-to-late twentieth century, both positivist and antipositivist schools of thought were subjected to criticisms and modifications. British philosopher Sir Karl Popper suggested that human knowledge is based not on unchallengeable, rock solid foundations, but rather on a set of tentative conjectures that can never be proven conclusively, but only disproven. Empirical evidence is the basis for disproving these conjectures or ‘theories’. This metatheoretical stance, called postpositivism (or postempiricism), amends positivism by suggesting that it is impossible to verify the truth although it is possible to reject false beliefs, though it retains the positivist notion of an objective truth and its emphasis on the scientific method.

Likewise, antipositivists have also been criticised for trying only to understand society but not critiquing and changing society for the better. The roots of this thought lie in Das k apital , written by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which critiqued capitalistic societies as being socially inequitable and inefficient, and recommended resolving this inequity through class conflict and proletarian revolutions. Marxism inspired social revolutions in countries such as Germany, Italy, Russia, and China, but generally failed to accomplish the social equality that it aspired. Critical research (also called critical theory) propounded by Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas in the twentieth century, retains similar ideas of critiquing and resolving social inequality, and adds that people can and should consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, although their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. Critical research attempts to uncover and critique the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo by analysing the oppositions, conflicts and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination (i.e., emancipate the oppressed class). More on these different research philosophies and approaches will be covered in future chapters of this book.

Social Science Research: Principles, Methods and Practices (Revised edition) Copyright © 2019 by Anol Bhattacherjee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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'Dance Your Ph.D.' winner on science, art, and embracing his identity

Ari Daniel headshot

Weliton Menário Costa (center) holds a laptop while surrounded by dancers for his music video, "Kangaroo Time." From left: Faux Née Phish (Caitlin Winter), Holly Hazlewood, and Marina de Andrade. Nic Vevers/ANU hide caption

Weliton Menário Costa (center) holds a laptop while surrounded by dancers for his music video, "Kangaroo Time." From left: Faux Née Phish (Caitlin Winter), Holly Hazlewood, and Marina de Andrade.

Weliton Menário Costa grew up in rural Brazil. "I come from the countryside of the countryside of the countryside," he says. He didn't have much, but from his earliest days, he loved to sing.

"I just remember looking at the singers on television and loving them," Menário Costa recalls. "I think if I could have picked a profession — if the world was equal and you could pick anything — I would have picked 'musician.'"

He took a detour into science, but ultimately he's returned to embrace music professionally. And he recently picked up a major accolade. Menário Costa won this year's " Dance Your Ph.D ." contest, an annual competition organized by Science magazine where doctoral students and Ph.D. graduates showcase their research through dance.

Menário Costa's winning submission highlights his work on kangaroo behavior and personality, but it also celebrates his identity — and what he's had to overcome to embrace it.

'I would just sing ... every day'

When Menário Costa was a boy in Brazil, he would try to sing and dance with his younger sister outside. That's when the comments would start.

"People were always like, 'Oh, that's a girl thing, you're a f** or whatever,'" he says. "Back then, I didn't even know what it was. I just knew it was negative. It's a very sexist space and homophobic and all that."

When Menário Costa did receive a compliment, it was usually for how smart he was. So he buried himself in school and excelled. He got into a competitive high school. But even so, he was chronically anxious about what others thought of him and worried that he wasn't good enough.

Scientists studied how cicadas pee. Their insights could shed light on fluid dynamics

Research News

Scientists studied how cicadas pee. their insights could shed light on fluid dynamics.

" So instead of going to parties and dancing or performing and doing the things I actually loved," Menário Costa says, "I would just lock myself in the room and say, 'Hey, I have homework.' But when I would shower, I would just sing ... every day."

With time, Menário Costa made it to Australia — first to study English, and then he received a scholarship to pursue his Ph.D. in behavioral ecology at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research focused on eastern gray kangaroos in Wilsons Promontory National Park in southeastern Australia.

"And my main question was, do kangaroos have personality ... different personalities?," Menário Costa explains. "And then, what's driving the behavior you see? Is it due to personality, or is it the social environment?"

It was during his Ph.D. — when Menário Costa was on this other continent half a world away from Brazil — that he managed to connect with who he really was. He came out as queer. He started singing and dancing out in the world again. And after finishing his Ph.D. amidst the struggles of COVID and bushfires, Menário Costa decided to leave science and dive into creative work.

This medieval astrolabe has both Arabic and Hebrew markings. Here's what it means

This medieval astrolabe has both Arabic and Hebrew markings. Here's what it means

"Now I'm gonna be a singer, now I'm gonna be a dancer, and now I'm gonna be all these things I liked as a kid," he says. Menário Costa started performing at pubs and small venues, mostly singing covers. "Then, last year, I started writing as well, and performing my own original songs."

Diversity in kangaroos — and in dance

To Menário Costa, Science magazine's "Dance Your Ph.D." competition felt like "a perfect way of exposing my work as a singer songwriter ."

His submission — the song and dance "Kangaroo Time" — was born in an act of exuberant collaboration. The music video opens with Menário Costa driving to what appears to be his field site. There are a couple of kangaroo shots, but mostly it's a joyous sequence of dancers on an open landscape in Canberra — drag queens, Capoeira performers, ballet dancers, and people doing samba, salsa, hip hop, Brazilian funk, and traditional Indian dance.

This often-overlooked sea creature may be quietly protecting the planet's coral reefs

This often-overlooked sea creature may be quietly protecting the planet's coral reefs

"The way they move is very different," says Menário Costa, "but also what they wear to perform is quite different. I decided to use the actual diversity we have in a dance community."

This was how Menário Costa represented one of his central findings — that kangaroos have distinctive personalities, based on how much they squirm when they're handled as joeys and at what distance subadults and adult females move away from an approaching human.

In addition, kangaroo siblings often have similar personalities, and for that Menário Costa dances alongside his own sister — the first family member to ever visit him in Australia. "One of the main reasons that made her want to come was to be in that video," he says. "It was so special having her here."

Menário Costa also discovered that when kangaroos move between groups, they adjust their behavior to conform to that of their companions. In the video, he makes his way to other groups and adopts the new dancing styles as he goes.

The main lyrics are simple, but catchy: "I'm gonna share with you... hope you don't mind... some things I learned from my kangaroo time." The phrase "kangaroo time" has a rainbow of meanings.

"It means the time I did my kangaroo research," says Menário Costa. "But [it] also means the first time I lived as a gay man. It's the first time I lived as an immigrant, five years without going home. The time of reconnection to myself, of exploring my sexuality, of bridging these beautiful communit[ies]."

Menário Costa, who now goes by the stage name WELI, says that filming this music video — when all his worlds came together in a single afternoon — feels like his most significant achievement to date. He likens his first place finish to winning the Eurovision Dance Contest.

The video ends with text emblazoned onscreen — "Differences lead to diversity. It exists within any given species; it is just natural."

  • science communication
  • animal behavior
  • animal biology
  • dance your PhD
  • lgbtq+ identity

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  1. What is the scientific method, and how does it relate to insights and

    a scientific research is

  2. Infographic: Steps in the Research Process

    a scientific research is

  3. Module 1: Introduction: What is Research?

    a scientific research is

  4. what is scientific research .characteristics of scientific research

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  5. The Scientific Method

    a scientific research is

  6. What is Research?

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VIDEO

  1. Day 2: Basics of Scientific Research Writing (Batch 18)

  2. Your research can change the world

  3. Basics of scientific research| Introduction to scientific research| lecture 1

  4. Metho1: What Is Research?

  5. Meaning & characteristics of scientific research || वैज्ञानिक शोध का अर्थ एवं विशेषताएँ

  6. Scientific Research Writing

COMMENTS

  1. What is Scientific Research and How Can it be Done?

    Research conducted for the purpose of contributing towards science by the systematic collection, interpretation and evaluation of data and that, too, in a planned manner is called scientific research: a researcher is the one who conducts this research. The results obtained from a small group through scientific studies are socialised, and new ...

  2. Scientific Research

    Scientific research is the systematic and empirical investigation of phenomena, theories, or hypotheses, using various methods and techniques in order to acquire new knowledge or to validate existing knowledge. It involves the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of data, as well as the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

  3. Scientific method

    The scientific method is critical to the development of scientific theories, which explain empirical (experiential) laws in a scientifically rational manner.In a typical application of the scientific method, a researcher develops a hypothesis, tests it through various means, and then modifies the hypothesis on the basis of the outcome of the tests and experiments.

  4. What Is Research, and Why Do People Do It?

    Abstractspiepr Abs1. Every day people do research as they gather information to learn about something of interest. In the scientific world, however, research means something different than simply gathering information. Scientific research is characterized by its careful planning and observing, by its relentless efforts to understand and explain ...

  5. Research

    Scientific research is a systematic way of gathering data and harnessing curiosity. [citation needed] This research provides scientific information and theories for the explanation of the nature and the properties of the world. It makes practical applications possible. Scientific research may be funded by public authorities, charitable ...

  6. Chapter 1 Science and Scientific Research

    The scientific method, as applied to social sciences, includes a variety of research approaches, tools, and techniques, such as qualitative and quantitative data, statistical analysis, experiments, field surveys, case research, and so forth. Most of this book is devoted to learning about these different methods.

  7. Scientific Research Definition, Classifications & Purpose

    Scientific research is the systematic investigation of scientific theories and hypotheses. A hypothesis is a single assertion, a proposed explanation of something based on available knowledge, for ...

  8. Scientific Research & Study Design

    The research contributes to a body of science by providing new information through ethical study design or. The research follows the scientific method, an iterative process of observation and inquiry. The Scientific Method. Make an observation: notice a phenomenon in your life or in society or find a gap in the already published literature.

  9. Steps of the Scientific Method

    The Scientific Method starts with aquestion, and background research is conducted to try to answer that question. If you want to find evidence for an answer or an answer itself then you construct a hypothesis and test that hypothesis in an experiment. If the experiment works and the data is analyzed you can either prove or disprove your hypothesis.

  10. Module 1: Introduction: What is Research?

    The National Academy of Sciences states that the object of research is to "extend human knowledge of the physical, biological, or social world beyond what is already known.". Research is different than other forms of discovering knowledge (like reading a book) because it uses a systematic process called the Scientific Method.

  11. The scientific method (article)

    The scientific method. At the core of biology and other sciences lies a problem-solving approach called the scientific method. The scientific method has five basic steps, plus one feedback step: Make an observation. Ask a question. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.

  12. What is Research? Definition and steps of the scientific method

    The term, research, is much stricter in science than in everyday life. It revolves around using the scientific method to generate hypotheses and provide analyzable results. All scientific research has a goal and ultimate aim, repeated and refined experimentation gradually reaching an answer. These results are a way of gradually uncovering ...

  13. Perspective: Dimensions of the scientific method

    The traditional scientific method: Hypothesis-driven deduction. Research is the undisputed core activity defining science. Without research, the advancement of scientific knowledge would come to a screeching halt. While it is evident that researchers look for new information or insights, the term "research" is somewhat puzzling.

  14. Science and the scientific method: Definitions and examples

    Science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work. Scientists use the scientific method to make observations, form hypotheses and gather evidence in an ...

  15. Scientific method

    The scientific method is an empirical method for acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. The scientific method involves careful observation coupled with rigorous scepticism, because cognitive assumptions can distort the interpretation of the observation.Scientific inquiry includes creating a hypothesis through inductive reasoning ...

  16. What is Scientific Research and How Can it be Done?

    to reliability, e ectiveness, e ciency, accessibility and quality ' (1). e questions, methods of response to questions and di culties in scienti c research may vary, but the design and structure ...

  17. What is the Scientific Method: How does it work and why is it important

    Article. Research Process. The scientific method is a systematic process involving steps like defining questions, forming hypotheses, conducting experiments, and analyzing data. It minimizes biases and enables replicable research, leading to groundbreaking discoveries like Einstein's theory of relativity, penicillin, and the structure of DNA.

  18. What is Scientific Research and How is it Conducted?

    The link between scientific research, the media and policy is illustrated in Fig 1.2. If research is conducted using a scientifically plausible methodology, the information gathered amounts to scientific evidence and it can provide a plausible basis for policy and personal decision-making. For instance, based on the evidence that second-hand ...

  19. (PDF) What is research? A conceptual understanding

    This research article explores the essence, functions, and process of research, with a specific focus on scientific research. In addition, it delves into the characteristics of scientific research ...

  20. Science has an AI problem. This group says they can fix it

    The checklist focuses on ensuring the integrity of research that uses machine learning. Science depends on the ability to independently reproduce results and validate claims. Otherwise, new work cannot be reliably built atop old work, and the entire enterprise collapses. While other researchers have developed checklists that apply to discipline ...

  21. U.S. Tightens Rules on Risky Virus Research

    Research on extinct pathogens will draw the highest levels of scrutiny. Dr. Evans also noted that the new rules emphasize the risk that lab research can have on plants and animals.

  22. A new mother's immune status varies with her feeding strategy

    Indeed, she said, much of the research on the effects of breastfeeding concentrate on the infant, with many findings that demonstrate benefits of breastfeeding to the baby's immunity and development.

  23. SUPPLEMENTAL FUNDING OPPORTUNITY

    May 6, 2024. Dear Colleague: Fostering the growth of a globally competitive and diverse research workforce and advancing the scientific and innovation skills of U.S. students are strategic objectives of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

  24. Dara Wald honored as Andrew Carnegie Fellow

    Wald is a tenured Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications, Bryan-College Station.She is also a research fellow at the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy. "This is a momentous honor for Dr. Wald," said Texas A&M University provost and executive vice president Alan Sams ...

  25. Blacklisted Chinese tech giant is covertly funding scientific research

    Huawei is the sole funder of a research competition that has awarded millions of dollars since its inception in 2022 and attracted hundreds of proposals from scientists around the world, including ...

  26. Science and scientific research

    The goal of scientific research is to discover laws and postulate theories that can explain natural or social phenomena, or in other words, build scientific knowledge. It is important to understand that this knowledge may be imperfect or even quite far from the truth. Sometimes, there may not be a single universal truth, but rather an ...

  27. 'Dance Your Ph.D.' winner on science, art, and embracing his identity

    'Dance Your Ph.D' music video 'Kangaroo Time' showcases differences, diversity Weliton Menário Costa's award-winning music video showcases his research on kangaroo personality and behavior ...