Scientific Research

Most everyone has heard about scientific research, but less know what scientists are really up to. The following write-up is based on some of the scientific outreach I have been involved in.

What do scientists do?
In brief, scientists are primarily concerned with answering two questions: "How?" and "So what?" Of course, these questions are being investigated by scientists over all sorts of scales: everything from understanding the cosmos, all the way down to the nature of how matter itself is put together.  The process of answering these questions is described as research - when a scientist says "my research is about...", they are referring to the specific "how?" and "so what?" questions they are trying to answer and often the specialized tools they use to do so. 

What is the goal of research?
Scientists often describe their work as basic or applied, referring generally to the outcome of the "so what?" question.  Of course, the distinction between these two can be blurry; however, we can generally say that the aim of basic research is extending our insight into a particular phenomenon & contextualizing how it fits with what we know. This contrasts with applied research, which is less concerned with contextualizing and focuses on how we can take something we know about and make it more useful. Both basic and applied research are essential for the development of new technology - and the amount of time it takes to realize a new discovery in a commercial product may happen rapidly, or take many years. What can be counted on is that the unexpected happens: sometimes a discovery made in basic research has immediate applications or unexpected new things are uncovered during more applied projects. A great example is the unexpected discovery of the antibiotic penicillin

Do scientists teach?
Scientists at many institutions play the dual role of being both a laboratory researcher and course instructor. In the classroom, typically the goal is to give students the necessary background to be able to understand the context of what comes next.
But the classroom is only one of the places that scientists teach! Because there is so much information out there that would be useful for other scientists to know, communicating one's research is a critical element of the scientific enterprise. This communication between scientists is mainly done in two ways: 1) Research reports are written into papers that summarize a particular result and the context of the work; this work is then published and distributed to other researchers. 2) Another way that researchers teach each other what is going on is by organizing and attending conferences, where researchers present their findings and take questions from the audience. 

What are publications & what is peer-review?
Publishing is the primary way by which scientists record their work. The first step is writing a paper that summarizes a particular result and the methods used to obtain it. This also contains an abbreviated summary of the necessary background needed to make the paper understandable as a stand-alone piece. Of course, most work builds upon a vast quantity of previous research, and thus the background is accompanied by a list of references that can be consulted to find more details on relevant information.
After a paper is written, it is then sent to an editor who will choose several other scientists with relevant expertise to judge the paper on the quality of the work performed and soundness of the results. The identity of these reviewers is usually kept anonymous so that their feedback can be given honestly. The paper authors are then given a chance to respond to the reviewers' comments, and the editor ultimately decides whether the work is ready to be published. If the paper is ready, it is given a unique identification code called a DOI number and is made available to other scientists online usually via their library. 
Not everything written in the scientific literature is proven to be correct. Most commonly, this happens because a single result was extrapolated too far. For example, lets say you and a friend each choose one of two dice to roll and declare the winner to be the one with the higher value. Your die shows a 4 and your friend has a 6. So you switch dice and roll again, the same die wins again! You might conclude that whoever holds the lucky die is likely to be the better choice to win the next roll. In practice, the chances of rolling higher in a roll are worse than even! Your die winning has only a 5 in 12 chance of success since there is no winner if the same number is rolled on both dice and this occurs in 6 of 36 possible outcomes, that is to say  ~1 in 6 times on average will be a tie. Analogous to this example, scientists might discover a lucky die, only to find out later that the result occurred only by chance and is incapable of predicting future results. Of course, the purpose of the peer-review step is to help identify such oversights; however, some errors are difficult for an outside observer to catch. Over time, the key and more proven results in a given field are gathered up and summarized in what is referred to as a review article, and the scientific enterprise moves in the right direction.

What happens to all the science in the media?
Scientific discoveries are often featured on the news with sensational titles like: "University cures X using only Y!" Oftentimes we never hear about these seemingly world-changing developments again. So what's happening?
Like everything else, good things take time. This is particularly true for the development of new ways to fight diseases, where a lengthy process is needed to ensure that new treatments are safe and to determine if there are any associated side effects.
How to learn about research?
There are many good resources for learning about the various cutting-edge research that is going on around the world!  I would recommend EurekAlert! (, which is developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for press releases on a wide-range of interesting topics. If looking for researchers who may be studying a specific topic in particular, Google Scholar is a great resource.

What are some experiments to do at home?
These days, anyone can do cutting-edge experiments without leaving home! Really all you need is a computer and a question! In the future, this section will include instruction links on how to set up experiments on your own computer using freely-available software.