The True Essence of Scientific Research

On April 18th, 2013, Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, demonstrated complete ignorance of the nature of scientific research. As Chairman of the committee, Rep. Smith oversees a body that holds broad jurisdiction over all legislation related to energy, the environment, and nuclear research. This committee funds the creation and research of agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) [1].

Since the committee wields such great power over science legislation, its members have a responsibility to be well educated and to have a thorough understanding of the nature of scientific research. However, on April 18th, Rep. Lamar Smith drafted a bill, The High Quality Research Act, that would force the NSF to adhere to criteria set by Congress when granting research funds, criteria that demonstrate an ignorance of how scientific research is conducted. The bill specifically stipulates three new standards which the NSF must meet:

(1) [The research must be] in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
(2) is of the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
(3) is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies [2].

The bill states that all research must directly benefit the USA, must meet the quality standards of the committee, and must not be replicating prior or ongoing research. Smith has stated that the goal of this new bill is to stop the funding of trivial research, which he and other members of the committee view as a waste of American tax dollars [3,4].

What Rep. Smith fails to understand is that trivial research is rarely trivial; countless discoveries have originated from research that seems trivial on the surface. Much of probability theory started when a crafty French nobleman hired Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat to figure out how best to win games of dice, and their research into gambling helped spur insights into understanding probability. Game theory developed along a similar route, when Emile Borel studied the best ways to win games like poker. Although they started on the simple premise of research into how gambling works, both led to a much deeper understanding of the world [5].

Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for his research in quantum electrodynamics, viewed research as playing, and approached problems without considering the routes that they might take. He made one of the fundamental insights into the spin of an electron after he began studying the motion of spinning plates. Feynman noticed that a spinning plate would wobble more slowly than it spun. Wondering why this occurred, he started to research how the accelerations of individual particles in the plates worked together. Deriving some difficult equations of motion led him to find that the angle of wobbling affected the acceleration of individual molecules in the plate [6]. He abstracted and extended his findings on spinning plates to spinning electrons, and found that they were very similar in the way the electron causes the atom to wobble and spin. Feynman simply wanted to understand how the wobbling of plates affected their spin, but this trivial research lent him valuable insight into the motion of electrons.

Trivial research also often leads to life-saving conclusions. BGJ Knols of Wageningen University in the Netherlands conducted a study to see whether female mosquitos are more attracted to limburger cheese or human feet. Knols found that in certain conditions, mosquitos are more attracted to the cheese than to other odorous things, like human feet [7]. On the surface, this discovery seems dismissible, but Knols’ research into mosquitos’ cheese preferences paved the way for the development of novel ways to combat the spread of malaria.

Beyond the ignorance concerning the so-called triviality of research, Smith also makes a grievous error in the third bullet of his proposed bill. By its very nature, science is a process that involves retesting and building on past results. Barring the NSF from funding duplicative research would mean that in the future, the NSF could never fund any studies that would replicate or emulate old studies, effectively hamstringing the ability of the scientific community to retest and validate old hypotheses.

Good scientific research necessitates that other researchers take old studies and retest them, carefully combing the research for flaws. In fact, a hypothesis can only be elevated to the status of scientific theory if it survives retesting. It is only when an observed phenomenon has been demonstrated in multiple studies that we can consider it as fact. Retesting of prior research is critical to public good and safety; it was retesting that disproved the connection between vaccinations and autism, and it will be retesting that disproves the next harmful and misleading study. Retesting is good science, and good science is retesting. It reduces confirmation bias, and prevents errant results from misleading the public. It is shameful that Lamar Smith has failed to understand this.

None of this is to say that science funding in the United States should remain unchanged. However, those who seek to preside over scientists and dictate how they go about their research must first understand the essence of scientific research. They must understand that science is a messy process, a process that sometimes stumbles in the dark, sometimes fails, and sometimes succeeds beyond what we could have ever expected.


Will Craft is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Political Science and minoring in Physics. He is interested in the intersections between science research and the everyday, and has a keen interest in science policy.