ARCHIVED - NRC Scientists Discuss their Work (Part 1)

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September 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

About this article

We hope you enjoy reading this first monthly installment of a 3 part series to appear in upcoming issues of NRC Highlights.

Each article will present the remarkable responses we received, a number of which are cited here. The answers are often candid and don't shy away from making some broad statements.

Future issues will expose the scientists' journey to scientific discovery and present their hopes for research.

  • Part 1 (September 2005)
  • Part 2 (October 2005)
  • Part 3 (November 2005)

It's been said that scientific discoveries don't begin with the fabled "Eureka!" but rather with... "Now, that's funny... " [1]

To test this statement and to shed more light on the nature of science and scientific discoveries, NRC Highlights recently e-mailed a series of questions to NRC researchers whose work we have profiled over the past three years as part of the monthly Highlights.

Perhaps being overly pessimistic, in the e-mail, we raised the possibility that for many people science is like something like a black box, the kind that investigators examine after a plane crash. Non-experts know that there is important information contained in the box, but perhaps they are unsure of how it got there and how to interpret it.

Using this metaphor, we asked NRC scientists to share their thoughts about what happens around that famous "Now that's funny... " moment and what this means for discovery. In a series of highly non-scientific open-ended questions we raised issues such as: how science evolves; how new scientific fields are created; how scientists deal with these shifting changes, and the role of the scientific method vs. just plain intuition.

Scientific Inquiry – Intuition Counts, but There Are no Short Cuts

Test tubes

If science is a black box, then where better to start unraveling the mystery than by investigating the elements of scientific inquiry. The first questions posed concerned the nature of scientific investigations. What is the role of the scientific method? What is the role of intuition? Can they co-exist?

In essence, these questions attempted to address some of the rules set out in science involving the collection of evidence, how hypotheses are developed, and the need for reproducible results. Science is built on evidence and theory — individual yet highly-linked building blocks that allow the creation of new experiments and new knowledge. In a 1999 speech, Sir John Maddox, the former editor of Nature remarked: "We keep on asking the same questions. How was the universe built? How does life go on? Where is the mind? These are all questions asked quite cogently by Aristotle more than two and a half thousand years ago. But we keep asking the questions in a more demanding way and we keep demanding more precise and specific answers. That's progress in fundamental science."

Not surprisingly, the process of answering to these questions helps explain the seemingly interminable timelines associated with science. For example, if Hollywood can produce hundreds of films in a year, why is it taking so long to find a cure for cancer?

Some selected responses are contained below.

"I think that the basic framework for investigation always boils down to some form of the "scientific method". We are usually following some sort of lead and base our next step or experiment on the results from previous work. Sometimes we try something out of the ordinary to check if our original ideas are right or wrong, but mostly the next experiment is based on a logical deduction from previous work."

"There is a lot more 'let's see what happens' in real science, and less 'lets make a hypothesis and test it'. This is particularly the case these days with genomics and proteomics. There was no hypothesis to test when the human genome was sequenced, but it was still fundamentally important science."

"There is a lot of pressure on scientists to seek their funding for "targeted research". However, basic science is, by its nature, curiosity driven: it relies for its successful pursuit on the freedom to explore - something that targeted research cannot condone. Some of the greatest technological revolutions grew out of curiosity driven research, with no "target" in view. The transistor is but one example."

"If at first you do not believe your experimental result, then it is imperative that you repeat it until you are confident enough to publish it."

"You should always be critical of the results when you analyze your data. You want to know that what you are presenting truly represents the data you have acquired, and you are not interpreting the results a particular way because of bias on the researcher's part."

"You attempt to punch holes in everything, until the only thing standing is your conclusion. This is also one of the reasons research takes time - this process goes on at all stages (design, implementation, analysis, and interpretation)."

"I have not invented many things by intellect or design. Too many times, it happens by accidents or intuition. However, you have to work very hard and try so many ways to allow many accidents to happen or to test your intuition. You also have to be very alert to catch the rare beneficial accidents out of so many failed experiments based on accidents or intuition."

"Perhaps it is not intuition, but merely the manner that you approach the question. Frequently, others are doubtful that it is possible to do something. I have experienced this repeatedly in that many other researchers and physicians doubt that it would be possible to accomplish something. The driving force here is the fact that unless you try you will never know. It is not intuition that it will work, but a lack of evidence that it will not work."

By now, you probably have some questions and thoughts as well. NRC Highlights tries to interest "sci curious" readers and we would like to know what you thought of this first installment. Was it interesting? Did it help you better understand some of the underlying issues around scientific investigation? What are your views? Let us know what you think by filling out the feedback form below!


[1]"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, "hmmm... that's funny... " Issac Asimov

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