Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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Assessing contemporary science

3 Perspectives on contemporary science

Contemporary, ‘up-to-date’ knowledge can be compared to science that is ‘agreed’ knowledge – for example, something you might read in a textbook or a popular science book (Latour, 1987). How, then, do scientists make sense of the difference between new and agreed knowledge? And what are the characteristics that make an effective scientist? Complete the next activity to find out more.

Activity 3 Perspectives on contemporary science and scientists

Timing: Allow about 1 hour

Study the following audio interviews, featuring Open University scientists, Clare Warren (Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences), Martin Bootman (Reader in Biomedicine), Claire Turner (Professor of Analytical Science) and Phil Wheeler (Senior Lecturer in Ecology). Each of the scientists is interviewed by Richard Holliman (Professor of Engaged Research).

These interviewees were selected because (at time of writing) they are current Open University scientists and are actively researching and producing new scientific knowledge. However, they also conduct research in different academic disciplines: life and health sciences; chemistry and analytical sciences; and environment, Earth and ecosystem sciences.

Compare and contrast all four (or at least two) of the audio interviews to explore where their perspectives are similar and different. To this end, you should listen to each of the interviews more than once, and consider the following questions. There is a box beneath the audio clips where you can make notes as you listen.

  • What are the current topics of enquiry for each scientist?
  • What do these scientists see as key characteristics of successful scientists?
  • What scientific evidence do these scientists see as agreed knowledge in their discipline?
  • What mechanisms do they describe for how this knowledge was evaluated?
  • What would it take for agreed knowledge in science to be replaced with new knowledge?
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1
Skip transcript: Audio 1 Richard Holliman interviews Clare Warren.

Transcript: Audio 1 Richard Holliman interviews Clare Warren.

RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Hi. My name is Richard Holliman and I’m one of the Block 1 authors on S350 Evaluating contemporary science.
I’m joined here by Clare Warren, who works in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems Sciences at The Open University.
We are here to discuss how science progresses.
So Clare – what’s your current topic of enquiry?
CLARE WARREN
I’m a geologist. My research investigates how rocks get buried, deformed, transformed into new and beautiful rock types and get brought back up to the surface again.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. One of the things we’re kind of interested in is what you see are the key characteristics of being a successful scientist.
CLARE WARREN
Well obviously all scientists have enquiring minds. You know, they’re the types of people who ask loads of questions as a kid and get told off by their parents for stop asking so many questions.
But good geologists certainly also need to be really observant because a lot of the key information they get from the field and from the rock samples they need to look at them properly.
Determination and cooperation are really important especially for field work and lab work, and you’ve got to be pretty hard working as well.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. So we’re also interested in the types of scientific evidence that you think that you see are currently agreed knowledge in your discipline. So what would you say is agreed knowledge?
CLARE WARREN
Well, I guess the theory of plate tectonics is probably the main one in Earth sciences and so this is a 1960s theory that describes how rocks on the surface move around the large-scale motions.
I mean that’s now taught in schools. Primary school kids know about mid-ocean spreading and subduction zones and volcanoes. So I would say that’s probably the most common knowledge.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay, and how did you see that becoming kind of agreed knowledge in your discipline? How did it come about?
CLARE WARREN
Well, it was a series of observations from I guess starting in the 1800s where people noticed that there were fossils that were the same on different continents and the shapes of the continents fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.
But nobody could really explain the mechanisms by which continents could drift and it wasn’t really until geophysical observations in the 1960s, so looking at the magnetic stripes on the sea floor, and satellite data looking at global positioning systems, how rocks are moving apart from each other, and those really nailed the previous observations and said, ‘Look, these things do happen. Plates do move apart, and do collide together again.’
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. So you’re saying basically somebody kind of came up with some kind of theory and then the evidence comes in and basically cements that?
CLARE WARREN
Yeah, but the people who came up with the original theory were laughed at, because you know Alfred Wegener in the [nineteen] thirties said, ‘Hey look continents drift apart’, and everyone said, ‘No they don’t. How can they possibly be drifting apart? Rocks are rocks. They’re solid.’
But over time there was more and more evidence came together to show that actually they did. But it wasn’t until people found the mechanism by which that happened that that theory crystallised and became accepted fact.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Cool. So what would it take for that to change? What would it take for somebody to come and say, ‘Actually, we’ve disproved plate tectonics? Here’s another theory’?
CLARE WARREN
I guess plate tectonics itself; there’s so much weight of evidence for it that it would, I reckon, be almost impossible to overturn, but the devil is in the detail to some extent. There are bits of that theory which don’t fit.
So plate tectonics describes how solid things move around the surface of the Earth and when you collide two continents together they act much more weakly. It’s much more fluid and plate tectonics theory doesn’t really describe that very well.
So I don’t think it will be a paradigm shift but I think incremental knowledge will suddenly help us to understand how two continents can collide together and form the Himalayas, for example, in a much more robust fashion.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. So you see small incremental changes, not a bit massive shift.
CLARE WARREN
Yeah, I think there are big shifts to be made in some parts of Earth sciences, for example, the origin of life on Earth, or how the Earth formed in the first place but plate tectonics itself I think is a pretty well embedded theory.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Cool. Thanks very much.
CLARE WARREN
You’re very welcome.
End transcript: Audio 1 Richard Holliman interviews Clare Warren.
Audio 1 Richard Holliman interviews Clare Warren.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
Skip transcript: Audio 2 Richard Holliman interviews Martin Bootman.

Transcript: Audio 2 Richard Holliman interviews Martin Bootman.

RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Hi. My name is Richard Holliman and I’m one of the Block 1 authors on S350 Evaluating contemporary science.
I’m here today with Martin Bootman, who works in the School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences at The Open University.
We are here to discuss how science progresses.
So Martin, what’s your current topic of enquiry?
MARTIN BOOTMAN
So, my principle interest is how the cells in the body communicate with each other.
In particular, I’m interested in hormonal communication. So, that’s the way in which cells use factors that they secrete and then travel to another cell, engage with that cell, and cause it to change its activity. That’s what we study.
In particular, we’re interested in what hormones regulate the activity of the heart; what makes it beat faster and contract in a stronger way to pump more blood. That’s our key interest.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Cool. That’s really interesting. So I’m kind of interested in what do you see as the key characteristics of being a successful scientist?
MARTIN BOOTMAN
Well, I think number one, you’ve really got to have an enquiring mind so, you’ve got to look at the world with a sense of wonder and fascination, and perhaps also question things a little bit as well.
So, when you hear information you don’t just absorb it, you actually process it a little bit, and I think that’s what all scientists do, certainly the ones that then go on to develop questions that they can test in a kind of laboratory or a research environment.
I think you’ve also got to be quite dogmatic, a little bit. You’ve got to have perseverance, because we take small steps in science.
We develop questions and we answer them quite slowly, because systems that we study are complex, and sometimes it’s difficult to interpret the data that we get, the results that we find.
Sometimes it’s difficult to think of a new way of researching something, so it can be quite slow and it requires an awful lot of perseverance.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. So what would you say is currently agreed knowledge in your discipline area?
MARTIN BOOTMAN
Well I think there’s lots.
Work on the heart, for example, has been going on all the way back to Sidney Ringer, you know, back in the 1800s.
So, there’s a lot of basic physiology that’s known and universally accepted about how the heart works, and that’s been added to over the centuries, over the decades, and that’s well grounded.
We know what the heart does. We know the structure, the anatomy of the heart, and we know its basic physiology.
Where modern research comes in is actually understanding the nuances of what goes wrong.
So, although we understand the anatomy and the basic structure of the heart and its function, what we don’t understand is some of the disease situations, some of the things that make the heart perform badly. How do they occur?
And in particular some of the genetic mutations that are very subtle in their effect, but in the lifetime of the person where your heart has to beat for seventy years, and pump essentially like a tanker-and-a-half worth of blood around your body, one genetic mutation that might have a very low penetrance, that means it might not have a very obvious kind of effect, in your lifetime that could lead to heart failure.
But why? And why does it take a billion beats before that heart failure is evident? Why is it not more penetrant earlier on?
So, those kind of things have really waited for an explosion in the techniques we call molecular biology, which enable us to go back and actually either correct that mutation, or to force that mutation to happen in certain situations, and then we can look at the outcomes.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. Could you tell us a little bit about your contribution to this kind of area?
MARTIN BOOTMAN
Yes, so my group for many years actually studied how cells use calcium as a messenger, and calcium inside cells is what we call a pleiotropic messenger – it does many different things.
In fact one of the first things that happens to everyone in life when a sperm meets an egg is a rise in the calcium concentration and that’s necessary for many things.
In particular, it stops other sperm engaging with the egg, but it also starts the developmental programme, and stops cells being dormant any more, causing them to divide and causing them to form an individual. So a calcium signal is the first thing to happen to all of us.
With regard to the heart, every time the heart beats, every time there’s an electrical signal that pervades the heart it causes a calcium rise inside each of the cells of the heart, and it’s that calcium signal that causes the cells to contract, and the millions of cells that contract simultaneously generates the force that pumps blood around the lungs and the body.
So, we’ve taken our knowledge that we had from studying calcium signalling in other tissues to studies of the heart, and so that’s been our major contribution; actually understanding the fine detail of the dynamics of calcium signalling in heart cells.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. And can you tell us a little bit about how your work has contributed to a kind of paradigm shift?
MARTIN BOOTMAN
So yeah it’s – it’s been a very interesting development for us since we started working on heart cells which is over a decade ago now.
I had a visitor who was a medic who came to work in my lab from Finland. So I had to think of a project for him to do and I said to him, ‘Mika, do you want to have a look at these channels?’, that we were studying at the time.
They were called IP3 receptors and just see if they are expressed in the heart and maybe have an idea – formulate some ideas of what they might do.
I didn’t think that project would lead very far if I was honest. I thought it would be just a quick look and see and it would satisfy him for his year’s sabbatical.
But actually, it opened up a whole new paradigm for us. Mika did his studies very diligently, and we got a data set that proves that the IP3 receptors are expressed in – in contractile myocytes – the heart cells.
We put the whole story together and we sent it off to a journal called Cell, which is a top level journal, but we weren’t successful in publishing it, and in fact we faced an awful lot of hostility.
So in the end we published it in a journal called Current Biology (Lipp et al., 2000).
We did take the data to conferences. We talked to other cardiac researchers. And they regarded it with mild cynicism at the time I think.
And the reason is because they’d been studying heart cells for so long that they thought they understood them very well, and there wasn’t really room for us with our new calcium channels to do anything.
They thought they really knew the system well, and we were interlopers, and they didn’t really appreciate our data at the beginning.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
So in a way I guess you’re challenging their foundational knowledge and have come up against –
MARTIN BOOTMAN
Absolutely.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Those kind of challenges in a very kind of obvious way –
MARTIN BOOTMAN
Absolutely, and I think that’s why you’ve got to make sure that you’re thinking about experiments in a holistic way.
That you’re not simply going with how you think a system works, that you do have that capacity to think differently, to accept new data, to understand you might have very good experimental techniques to study what you’re interested in.
There’s still capacity for paradigm shifting new evidence to come along, and then you have to adjust, you have to incorporate that.
And actually in later years, you know, I’m pleased to say other labs demonstrated what we demonstrated, and we were actually proven through repetition, which is really the way that science becomes established as fact, as it were.
The most important thing of course is not – is not about personal satisfaction. It’s about the fact that we helped develop a new idea for something that might be a therapy for people who end up with heart failure, and that’s the point.
So, these IP3 receptors, expressed in the heart cells, do have a capacity to cause a slight elevation in the calcium levels over many, many heartbeats that can cause the expression of certain genes inside cardio myocytes, which are not good, and so we know now that IP3 receptors, if they’re activated in heart cells, can lead to a condition called decompensated heart failure.
I’m very glad that our contribution was acknowledged. It took us a while. It took us a while to convince people but, you know, what we’d managed to do is establish a new paradigm, which hopefully will have a benefit for health.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
That’s excellent. Thanks very much.
MARTIN BOOTMAN
You’re welcome.
End transcript: Audio 2 Richard Holliman interviews Martin Bootman.
Audio 2 Richard Holliman interviews Martin Bootman.
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Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 3
Skip transcript: Audio 3 Richard Holliman interviews Claire Turner.

Transcript: Audio 3 Richard Holliman interviews Claire Turner.

RICHARD HOLLIMAN
I’m joined now by Claire Turner, who works in the School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences at The Open University. We’re here to discuss how science progresses.
So Claire, what is your current topic of enquiry?
CLAIRE TURNER
Hello Rick, it’s very nice to talk to you today. My particular interest is in breath analysis and the use of – the odour of an individual to try and find out whether they have a particular disease or the state of their health.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. That’s fascinating. So, what would you see as the kind of key characteristics of a successful scientist?
CLAIRE TURNER
Well, for me, I think there are two fundamental characteristics that every scientist should have. The first one is curiosity. If you really aren’t interested in the world around you, and some of these questions, you’re never going to make a scientist because you’re not going to really want to find out the truth, for science is about truth.
If you’re not curious about the truth and want to know about it you’re not really going to be able to work towards that. So that’s number one.
The second one, which is very much a part of the first, is scepticism. I think you can make mistakes if you are not sceptical, because if you have – most of us think – have an opinion about things. If you have an opinion about something which you develop into a hypothesis you will seek information which will be supporting your hypothesis and you won’t seek information which will refute your hypothesis.
You need to be able to seek information, which will just tell you about stuff around your hypothesis, and then you can decide whether that information and that data you’ve obtained supports or refutes it. So you must be sceptical. And I think that’s absolutely fundamental.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
You’ve talked a bit about there about the kind of seeking truth if you like and one of the things I’m curious about is the notion of kind of agreed knowledge.
So what would be the kind of agreed knowledge in your area? What would be scientific truth if you like in your areas – established truth?
CLAIRE TURNER
My discipline is relatively young. It’s about 20 years old, but the idea for it came back from the Ancient Greeks when they kind of knew that if people had a particular smell coming off them, or off their breath, they had a particular condition such as tuberculosis or diabetes.
So they knew there was something wrong with them, couldn’t do anything about it, but they knew there was something wrong.
But it wasn’t until probably the late 1970s or around then that people started thinking that perhaps they could actually measure the composition of breath.
And Linus Pauling, a great chemist, actually used gas chromatography to analyse people’s breath, back in that time. But only in the last 20 years have people started thinking ‘Actually, they could use this to diagnose disease, it’ll be a lot easier.’
The problem is, although we do know that different diseases do give rise to different breath profiles or different odour profiles, lots of different groups have all been working independently from each other and there has been no standardised way of either taking a breath sample or sample of fluid from the patient, or actually the equipment used to – to analyse this has been different. Therefore, comparing what the different groups are doing might be the same disease, but they get different results.
And this has really been very difficult to try and therefore say, ‘Right, this disease has this exact profile, and this disease has this exact profile.’
So that’s really where the state-of-the-art is at the moment. We know that there different profiles, but it’s trying to nail those down because of the different groups working on it.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
That’s really fascinating because one of my questions was going to be about how you see that kind – how you see those kind of established truths becoming established if you like.
So I guess I’d modify it slightly for the answer you’ve just given me and say, how do you set standards in your area, or how could standards be set?
CLAIRE TURNER
That’s an extremely good question and one which the field is currently looking at doing. So there are a couple of groups being set up at the moment which are trying to identify how to produce a kind of standardised breath sample, if you like, which can then be used in a way that’s agreed across all the people working on this and then used – used to actually validate the instruments and then we can go back and start looking at the existing data.
I think another issue is that studies generally tend to done on small numbers of people and the reason for that is it’s very, very expensive to do studies like this, to recruit patients, to actually get people in, to get scientists in, to get the instrument in where the patient is.
To do all that is hugely, hugely expensive and getting funding to do this for 50 or 100 patients; not too difficult, but because this is a new field if you like, and because there is such variability in individual people and well – biological systems are by their very nature very variable – you get variability just between people, but also within individuals you have huge variation over the day, and all sorts of things can cause huge variations, and as a result of that in order to make real headway in this, first you’ve got to standardise stuff but secondly, you really have to measure large numbers of individuals in a population.
So the only way you’re actually going to do this is to get lots of different groups working together, but they’re going to need to use the same methodologies.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
So collaboration, standards established, and a larger data set.
CLAIRE TURNER
Absolutely and, of course, each set of samples you get on a particular condition on a particular group of people if it’s standardised that adds to the body of knowledge and gives you more information about doing this.
We know there is a profile out there. Everybody’s got a profile, and each disease has a profile. We know that. But it’s very easy to make mistakes in establishing what that profile is.
And I’ll give you an example. A little while ago, someone – a colleague of mine – was working to look at diagnosing cancer through breath analysis, went up to the ward and got breath samples from a number of different patients on the ward with this particular cancer; then went around the hospital and found a number of people who didn’t have the cancer and took breath samples from them, looked and thought, ‘Wow, there’s one particular compound in here which is really different in the cancer patients and the controls.’
And they were just about to send this off for publication when someone said, ‘Have you looked at the backgrounds in the ward and the rest of the hospital?’
And it turns out that the actual marker that they thought they’d found for cancer turned out to be something that was present in the air of the ward and not elsewhere in the hospital. So, it’s about understanding all the factors that can actually have an impact on your data.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Cool – thanks very much.
CLAIRE TURNER
Thank you.
End transcript: Audio 3 Richard Holliman interviews Claire Turner.
Audio 3 Richard Holliman interviews Claire Turner.
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Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 4
Skip transcript: Audio 4 Richard Holliman interviews Phil Wheeler.

Transcript: Audio 4 Richard Holliman interviews Phil Wheeler.

RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Hi. My name is Richard Holliman and I’m one of the Block 1 authors on S350 Evaluating contemporary science.
I’m here today with Phil Wheeler, who also works on S350. Phil works in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems Sciences, at The Open University.
We’re here to discuss how science progresses.
So Phil – what is your current topic of enquiry?
PHIL WHEELER
I’m an applied ecologist and conservation biologist and that means that I’m interested in animals and plants mostly, and how they interact with their environment. That’s the ecology bit.
The applied bit is about how those interactions relate to things that go on in the real world and how they affect people and human systems.
And the conservation biology bit is what happens when particular animals and plants or particular ecosystems become rare or threatened and usually that’s to do with people as well.
So I sort of work in science, but in areas of science that really relate to what people do.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
So what do you see is the characteristic, or key characteristics, of a successful scientist?
PHIL WHEELER
I think first and foremost it’s creativity. You’ve got to have ideas and that is at the beginning of the scientific process; thinking about questions that you are going to ask. And then it goes through that whole process thinking how you’re going to answer the questions.
In the real world, nothing happens without money, without resources so – so partly what you’ve got to do as a scientist is to figure out how you’re gonna convince somebody to give you the money or the resources to answer the questions that you’ve come up with.
So creativity goes across the piece there, and different scientists are good at different bits of that. Some are brilliant at all three and they’re the people who really get ahead. Most of us humans are good at one or two bits of that whole process.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
So what scientific evidence would you argue is currently agreed knowledge in your discipline?
PHIL WHEELER
It’s a difficult question for me Rick, because I’m an applied ecologist so what I do is very practical and it’s very difficult to go back to theoretical fundamentals that relate to lots of different practical scenarios.
So I would take it – run it back to the theory of evolution by natural selection. That’s the fundamental thing that underpins our understanding of all biological and ecological systems.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Okay. And how did that scientific evidence become agreed knowledge in your discipline?
PHIL WHEELER
It’s a long story, you’re going back over 150 years, but I suppose natural selection was an idea that was at its time, one that explained lots of things that didn’t have adequate explanations, and so it was very widely adopted but not uncontroversial and really the process over the fifty years following the publication of The Origin of the Species, which was the main kind of description of that, was about exploring the implications, testing the idea.
It was going back and saying right, if this is correct we should see this in nature. If this is correct then our experiments should generate these results.
Do the experiment – does it? By and large yes, and then incorporating other ideas that sort of developed out of that and other ideas that weren’t very familiar: genetics, understanding DNA, the molecule that carries the genetic code and affects natural selection.
They were all things that happened after that and were fundamental to fleshing out bits of the original theory that didn’t necessarily make sense or had little gaps in.
And for an ecologist it’s about exploring what the implications of natural selection are for how organisms interact with their environment and then how that relates to populations, abundances, distribution of organisms – all those sorts of things.
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
That’s a really interesting explanation. What you’re saying to me is, if you like, there is a bedrock and on top of that bedrock all these kind of interesting ideas which are slightly modified or extended that kind of initial understanding.
I’m kind of curious about how did that new knowledge, if you like, come in to adapt the original one?
PHIL WHEELER
In different sorts of ways. I think there will always be people who think that they’ve undermined existing, established knowledge and you often see scientific debate framed as being sort of scientists going head-to-head and there are situations where people have so fundamentally disagreed about very fundamental questions in biology including in evolution – how evolution happens. Then they do go head-to-head.
So Darwin’s original theory suggested that species evolve very gradually over time. Palaeontologists looking at the fossil record through the 1980s and 1990s had the idea that actually things evolve slowly over long periods of time and then go through these rapid jumps and the people who disagreed with them described that as ‘evolution by jerks’.
And they hated each other and I think to a certain extent they still do but actually most science is much more consensual than that.
It’s people agreeing that fundamental ideas, that the more fundamental ideas probably aren’t going to change substantially, but still leaving the door open for the potential that they might do.
So exploring things that build gradually and build our knowledge gradually. The idea of standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s that evolution not revolution, isn’t it?
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Fundamentally what you’re saying to me is, ‘There’s a scientific method, evidence tested over time, and then the good ideas stick and the other ones don’t.’
PHIL WHEELER
That’s right, yeah, and so an important thing there is as a scientist to be open to challenge. Obviously to challenge other people’s ideas, but also to be humble enough to have your ideas challenged and to put your hand up and say, ‘Yeah, you know, I got it wrong. Not that I got it wrong, but the evidence that I had led me to one conclusion. We’ve now got more evidence, so I’m gonna change my mind and conclude that things happen differently.’
RICHARD HOLLIMAN
Thanks very much, Phil.
PHIL WHEELER
Okay. Pleasure.
End transcript: Audio 4 Richard Holliman interviews Phil Wheeler.
Audio 4 Richard Holliman interviews Phil Wheeler.
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When you have completed your analysis of the interviews, compare and contrast the scientists’ perspectives on the questions asked above. In particular, look for any consistency or diversity in the responses about the characteristics required of a successful scientist, the relative maturity of the knowledge that each scientist describes as ‘agreed’, and the mechanisms for evaluating provisional scientific knowledge.

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Discussion

At the start of the respective interviews each of the four scientists describes their topics of enquiry. The topics are diverse with little obvious overlap:

  • geology; mountain building and formation of metamorphic rocks (Clare)
  • health sciences; the workings of the heart at the level of molecular biology (Martin)
  • chemistry; breath analysis as a diagnostic tool (Claire)
  • applied ecology and conservation biology; how humans and ecological systems interrelate and influence each other (Phil).

Where the work of these researchers does overlap is that they see similar characteristics in successful scientists.

  • First, they discuss the need to be curious, enquiring and creative in identifying challenges.
  • Second, they discuss the need to be observant, analytical and sceptical in researching the challenges that have been identified.
  • Third, they argue for the need to be persuasive in convincing others that newly-published research has originality, rigour and significance.
  • Finally, they talk of the need for determination, perseverance and hard work, with cooperation required between researchers when working in teams.

The interviewees share other similarities. They are all working at the frontiers of scientific knowledge in their respective disciplines. As they conduct their investigations, these scientists draw on existing evidence and interpretations published by other researchers to further scientific knowledge.

For Phil and Martin, the agreed knowledge they discuss in relation to their respective topics of enquiry is more than 150 years old. Clare Warren’s comments about the science of plate tectonics point to more recent knowledge, but no less foundational in its importance to geologists.

Phil, Martin and Clare Warren accept that the agreed knowledge they discuss could be replaced, but it would be very unlikely given the respective bodies of evidence that support the three underpinning theories. In effect, scientists working in these respective disciplines have established a scientific consensus around what could be considered foundational knowledge for any entry-level researcher.

In contrast, Claire Turner discusses ancient knowledge about the links between smell and disease. She argues that it is only very recently that researchers have been able to analyse breath samples using scientific techniques (i.e. since the 1970s).

Further, she notes that her discipline has yet to develop agreed standards by which breath samples can be analysed consistently and rigorously. In essence, her discipline is working towards the foundational knowledge that Phil, Clare and Martin’s disciplines already have in place.

What should be apparent is that for all four scientists, the process of knowledge production is fundamental to their research. Scientific knowledge progresses from what has been previously known or agreed through processes of investigation, evaluation and verification. This process of verifying results happens at the level of individual scientists, checking and repeating experiments until they are satisfied that their findings are valid, but also at the level of the wider scientific community.

Most of the time, scientific progress involves small, incremental gains in knowledge, with each gain being verified independently by other scientists. This is in contrast to more fundamental shifts in understanding like the one described by Martin Bootman in Audio 2.

The work Martin describes can be characterised as a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1996) because this research successfully challenged the existing scientific consensus in this academic field. He notes the time it took for the new evidence to become agreed knowledge. This required an initial publication (Lipp et al., 2000), evaluated through a process called peer review. This initial research was then further supported by other researchers who tested the original theory, and found it to be supported by evidence they published following peer review.

The interviews in the previous activity were recorded in the summer of 2016. Given the nature of contemporary science, these researchers have continued to produce new knowledge. If you are interested to see what they have been up to in the intervening period, complete the following optional activity.

Study note 2 Keeping up to date with the research(ers)

If you are interested in the work of the scientists and the interviewer who featured in Activity 3, you can find out more about their research from the following links to their Open University profiles: Clare Warren [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ; Martin Bootman; Claire Turner; Phil Wheeler, and Richard Holliman.

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