Researchers ask themselves numerous questions while they are designing studies, conducting experiments, analyzing data, deciding on conclusions, and composing research reports. These queries often are outnumbered by many other questions concerning the business of being a scientist. Questioning is such a routine activity for scientists that being a researcher basically is the same as being a big questioner!
This essay discusses some of the questions commonly considered by faculty researchers. This will mostly be of interest to scientists researching at universities, but also should be illuminating for non-scientists trying to learn how research operates and what scientists worry about. It is based upon my own experiences working as a faculty scientist.
Questions in the beginning!
When initiating a research investigation, junior faculty scientists typically have already asked themselves many questions about what subject(s) will be studied, which technical approaches will be used, who in the lab will work on different aspects of the project, what length of time can be used for each segment of work, etc. These questions concern practical aspects of doing research, and are answered in the corresponding grant application.
As results begin to be gathered, the Principal Investigator (i.e., the grant holder and boss of the lab) asks himself or herself if modifications are needed in the original plans. It is not unusual that changes in practical matters must be made; these can result in getting better data, obtaining larger amounts of results, adding other experiments to the project, saving precious time, changing the work schedules, etc. All the foregoing questions concerning the conduct of the research project are normal, useful, and quickly answered.
Questions arising later!
After portions of the project are nearing completion, another type of query arises. These questions are directed to such operations as presentation of abstracts at annual science society meetings, submission of manuscripts reporting the research results, evaluation of progress accomplished by graduate students and postdocs, planning for renewal of a research grant, etc. Typical examples include: (1) Do the experimental results gathered answer the selected research question(s) in a solid manner? (2) Are there enough results to publish now, or is more work necessary? (3) Are the present conclusions convincing or will they be controversial and not readily accepted by other scientists? (4) Which of 2 possible deadlines for applying for grant renewal should be used? (5) Does a grad student now have enough results to construct a strong thesis (i.e., is the glass full or only half full)?
Such questions all are necessary, and require making value judgments. If errors are made, it will be the fault only of the Principal Investigator. Progress in research work largely depends upon ongoing evaluations and making adjustments. Rather than do this once or twice a year, it is better to schedule these considerations every month or 2, so that constructive intervention can be made before any more valuable time is wasted.
Questions about business and research grants!
Probably more time is spent by today’s academic scientists worrying about research grants than is used for producing research results. Nowadays, even Nobel Laureates never can be really certain that their next application for grant renewal will be fully funded. Questions about business and research grants usually are not so easy to answer with confidence because they involve the personal opinions of other scientists (e.g., department chairs, review committees, research leaders, grant reviewers, etc.), and those might be biased, competitive, ignorant, jealous, overwhelmed, or underwhelmed.
Questions about composing a new grant application always are particularly difficult to answer. Should the proposal be directed towards this or that aspect of research (i.e., which has a greater probability of being funded)? Should a new research instrument be added or should we just continue with what is presently being used? Can 2 new postdocs be strongly justified, or only one? What will reviewers think about a proposal for work on a new research question that is very different from the current subject? These kinds of questions cause hairs to turn gray or fall out, and answers never can be certain. Sometimes it is valuable to examine these queries with colleagues you can trust.
Answering questions about preparing a revised application for a research grant also are never easy. Difficulties arise because it is not always clear exactly what criticisms or viewpoints damned the original application, and it is not known which new members will be added to the review panel (i.e., the chief reviewer(s) of the original application might no longer be sitting in judgment). Again, it often is very useful to discuss these difficult questions with an experienced colleague that you can trust.
What is the most general question?
The most frequent questions asked by academic researchers begin with the phrase, “What if … ?”. Questions of this type are mental examinations of experimental protocols, data interpretations, and other research operations; they often arise from curiosity and creativity. Typical examples include: (1) What if I change the amount of chemical-X in the protocol for my chief assay? (2) What if this result is only a placebo effect? (3) What if this complex new equation actually is wrong?
What is the biggest question?
In my opinion, the very biggest question that can be asked by a faculty scientist is, “Am I succeeding in becoming a renowned scientist?”. Traditionally, the answer was based upon the quality and significance of a scientist’s published results. Today, the situation of research at modern universities is so distorted that the biggest question asked by faculty scientists now is, “How many research grants have I acquired, and how much money have I been awarded?”. The answer is a number and it is never enough! Fortunately, high quality research reports still have a major impact upon the reputation of all scientists; publications in science journals remain important for determining who rises to the attention of other scientists and who becomes a research leader.
Asking questions and forming answers is truly important for all faculty research scientists. Everything and anything can and should be questioned! To be a good scientist is to be a good questioner! Progress in science and career depends in part upon comparing your own answers to those given by other scientists asked the same question!
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