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Sunday, 18 July 2010

Is Perfect Research Possible?

GK. Rajesh
Recently I was asked to write an essay, expressing my views on the statement "There Is No Hope of Doing Perfect Research" by the selection panel of a content writing employer. I gave them the following answer, which I wish to share with my readers.
   The given question on research can be put to any ‘human activity’ and still be found equally difficult to answer. Is it possible to do anything perfect? The quickest possible response is ‘no’. A little reflection will show that this answer in the negative has nothing to do with the activity under question. It is the perceived notion of the word ‘perfect’ that drives the respondent towards the negative answer because anything perfect is understood to be ‘nearly impossible’ let alone research. Usually ‘perfect’ as an adjective is used for harmless, jocular exaggeration of the quality under question. For example the expressions ‘a perfect fool’ or ‘perfect nonsense’ do not mean the qualities under question to be absolute. They are rather cursory and superficial remarks than conclusions of any serious investigation. One rarely encounters such expressions in scientific literature. Similarly the expression “perfect research” is not found in any standard literature. Instead, terms such as reliability, validity, credibility transferability and trustworthiness are used to indicate various desirable qualities of research work (Golafshani 600). Hence, in this essay the term ‘perfect’ will be used to collectively represent these terms.
   The term ‘research’ is defined as follows: “Scientific or scholarly investigations especially study or experiment aimed at the discovery, interpretation or application of facts, theories, or laws” (Allen1188), “Careful study or investigation, especially in order to discover new facts or information” (Hornby 996), “Diligent, protracted investigation” (“Webster’s” 1071). Thus research constitutes investigation and discovery/ interpretation/application of knowledge. A research may be safely regarded as fruitful if it results in the discovery of an object or a procedure which it is intended for. To call it perfect demands more assessment with regard to the quality of the discovery (whether it has all the qualities, excellences or elements that are requisite to its nature or kind), the procedure adopted (whether without fault or defect) and the way in which it was executed (whether economic and without negative externalities). For example the discovery of penicillin, in spite of its great utility may not be called perfect research since it was rather an accidental finding than result of systematic investigation originally intending to its discovery. Alexander Fleming wrote “… I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer, but I suppose that was exactly what I did …” (qtd. In Wikipedia.org). The discovery of molecular structure of DNA traced from its origins in 1868 by Friedrich Miescher to the celebrated work of Watson, Crick and Wilkins in 1962 could be considered as a continuum of perfect research. While quantitative research1 is more amenable to such assessment, qualitative research2 is not.
   Two case studies on my own research cited here are examples of quantitative research with mixed results. The first was my Master’s Degree dissertation work on temperature induced protein synthesis in silkworms (Rajesh GK, “Induction of Heat Shock”). Heat shock proteins are specialized proteins which are synthesized in living cells under stress of any kind. They are known to perform protective actions within the cell under trauma. My intention was to study the threshold temperature which triggers heat shock response in silkworms. The theoretical premise in which the experiment was set was excellent and the research question meaningful. But the work lacked in focus. In my slightly over enthusiastic mindset I set a very ambitious objective, not only to track down heat shock proteins but also to assess their differential expression in two breeds of silkworms. The experiment proved to be too big to fit in the time span permitted for an MSc dissertation. Though I could complete the experimental part as per my original design and with a high level of accuracy3 I could not subject the huge data generated into fruitful analysis and interpretation. Nevertheless the fraction of data that I could use was systematically put together into a neat report which received good remarks. I realized my mistake only at the end of the work. I had ben simply over ambitious and neglected the importance of focusing on the specific problem and conceptualizing the research work in a practical manner. I am sure, given more time to understand my mistake, the work could have been more systematically organized and made perfect. After all the empirical investigation was done perfectly, evidenced by the concordance of observations in replications.
   The second example is of my MPhil (Economics) dissertation on factors determining adoption of a (new and improved) technology by sericulture farmers in India (Rajesh GK, “Diffusion”). I investigated the reasons why a superior silkworm hybrid had not diffused well in the country in spite of great efforts from the government for more than a decade. Being better informed and having grown wiser out of the previous experience, I was more vigilant and pragmatic this time. After an exhaustive literature survey and expert consultation a very specific and real world problem was spotted down. The proposal was presented before a distinguished panel and finalized after incorporating suggested modifications. The theoretical background was strong and the study was conceived with clarity. The empirical investigation was planned to the minutest detail and the survey questionnaire perfected after a mock survey. The data was subjected to rigorous statistical analysis and the findings were written down systematically into a comprehensive yet concise report. The dissertation was awarded with an A-plus and I received an almost flattering comment from the external jury (which I consider I am not entitled to). But I do not deem the work perfect. Once the survey was completed I realized that in spite of all my preparatory work the sample selected by me was not quite representative of the country and the sample size too small given the diversity of technology adoption strategies employed by the target population. Since it was a time bound assignment I could not extend my survey to capture the diversity. I am sure that it would make a perfect piece of research if repeated with a bigger and different set of samples.
   My own imperfect researches are not convincing proof to conclude that there is no hope for perfect research. I do not agree to the statement ‘there is no hope for perfect research’; it could be so only if the term ‘perfect’ is taken on its ‘utopian sense’ of ‘ideal’. Then it is as good (or bad) as saying- anything human is imperfect. The European Commission’s Expert Group on Assessment of University Based Research commented
   “There is no single set of indicators capable of capturing the complexity of research and research assessment. There is no such thing as a perfect indicator; all indicators have their own specific strengths and weakness, and assessment exercises have to take this into consideration from the outset … (“European Commission” 12).”
If there is no perfect indicator for research assessment there is no point in looking for perfect research. Research is the life blood of human development; it is relentless quest for truth. When truth itself is subject to change, there is no meaning in idealizing research, which is one of the means for attaining it. According to Schwarts, “… research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we are doing. We can’t be sure whether we are asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result …” (1771). He calls this “productive stupidity” and concludes that “The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries”. Why waste time, thinking whether stupidity is perfect!
NOTES
1. Patton defines quantitative research as “use of standardized measures so that the varying perspectives and experience of people can be fit into a limited number of pre-determined response categories to which numbers are assigned” (qtd. In Golafshani 598)
2. Strauss and Corbin define qualitative research as “any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or other means of quantification” (qtd. In Golafshani 600)
3. Accuracy with respect to raising the biological specimens, adhering to the scientific standards and in quantifyication and electrophoretic separation of proteins.
Bibliography
Allen, Robert. The New Penguin English Dictionary. India: Penguin Books; 2000. Print
European Commission. Assessing Europe’s University-Based Research. Brussels: Directorate-General for Research Communication Unit; 2010. Web.
Golafshani, Nahid. Understanding Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report Volume 8 Number 4. Web. December. 2003
Hornby, AS. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. London: Oxford U.P; 1997. Print
Rajesh, GK. Diffusion of the bivoltine hybrid silkworm in India. M Phil. Dissertation submitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India; 2008. Print
Rajesh, GK. Induction of Heat Shock Proteins Under Temperature Stress in Silkworm Bombyx mori L. Races Analysed by SDS PAGE. MSc. Dissertation submitted to the Mysore University, India; 2005. Print
Schwartz, Martin A. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. The Journal of Cell science. 121, 1771; Web. April. 2008
Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary of The English Language. Chicago: Ferguson Pub; 1995. Print


2 comments:

madan said...

the blog on silkworm is wonderful platform to exchange our views on silkworm and its social connect.
congratulations

N.RAVI said...

The blog on Silkworm is very essential plotform for any researchers and students in the developing countries like India.My sucession is to register here regarding "Is perfect Research Possible".The village based school and colleges should keep sericulture as one of the additional subject of all levels, then only the basic concept of perfect research is possible in the areas of Sericulture since it is a cottage industries,the research should help the farmers not simple reason of publication of papaers or awarding degree that wont help the perfect rearch in this field subject like seriuclture.

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