Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Truth About Scientific Research

Scientist working in a labor. Isolated with clipping path.

I remember attending my 10th high school reunion. I was in my fellowship in pediatric nephrology, and my former classmates were amazed that I was “a real MD.” When I confided that I really liked doing research, they asked what discoveries I had made.

Science doesn’t work like that.

Yes, I know, people win Nobel prizes for “discovering” something or other. It may not be exactly what they set out to find, and it is very likely that their “discovery” is different from their original hypothesis. Novel data also get dissed. The first descriptions of many phenomena are relegated to “low-impact-factor” journals because reviewers refuse to believe something that is truly novel.

Science proceeds nonlinearly and incrementally. Only in retrospect can the path from A to B be seen. Several experiments may suggest a direction, but the overriding truth comes from a body of work. At other times an incidental part of the study proves to be more important than what was originally the goal.Science1

For example, I start out interested in condition X which is known to be associated with factor A. I believe that factor A produces factor B which promotes condition X. I do an experiment that shows A produces B; Science2however, my follow-up shows that B produces D in the presence of C. Someone else has shown that D causes condition Y. We now show that blocking C can prevent condition Y. Not what I set out to prove, but perhaps an important “discovery” if Y is a major health issue.

money in scienceAdvances depend on one thing: money. Generous sources of funding allow us to perform experiments and learn more about how life works. At the present time only 20% of studies are getting money from NIH. Peer review is a pretty good system, but you never know where a critical observation will come from. Reviewers also tend to favor more conservative work that is expected to go as planned rather than stuff that may provide novel break-through results. The NIH has tried to get around this issue, but hasn’t solved the problem yet.

Science is like a river of facts. As it flows and eddies form, seemingly unrelated streams from different sources may come together, making a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. And you never know which creek upstream will provide the critical drop.

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