(Sometime back, I wrote an essay on Morwenna Griffith's statement, "There is no hope for doing perfect research". It has given me an opportunity to understand research with a new perspective. I am reproducing the essay with the hope it may be useful to many people).
First and foremost, the above expression by itself is only a phrase, and does not explain full meaning of the expression. However, taking this in the context of its usage by Griffiths, this expression relates to the completeness and perfection of research. In order to dwell on the subject in some detail, let us examine this phrase to understand what it means in common terms. To do so, let us begin by examining three key words in the phrase: hope, perfect, research. According to Oxford dictionary ‘hope’ is a feeling of expectation and desire for something to happen; ‘perfect’ means having all the required elements or qualities; and ‘research’ is study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.
In the broader context of what the above phrase means, irrespective of disciplines, methodologies, sources, data, results, conclusions, and theories propounded in any research, the expected outcome of research is vulnerable, it is far from being lasting, and is subject to evolution, and thus it is ‘not Perfect’. I believe the statement is an outcome of substantial research, thinking and interpretation of what we observe with ongoing research across wide range of disciplines. I believe the statement “There is no hope for doing perfect research” by Griffiths, when judged in a very broad perspective of our natural word, holds true due to the very nature of the physical word, and manifestation of diverse materials, life, systems, forces, interacting in space and time. In spite of this, a research study carried out under given conditions of facilities, budget, timeframe, etc. has met its objectives is ‘Perfect’ in its full meaning for the given research project.
Research is ‘not-Perfect’ in broader perspective, why?
To discuss the vulnerability of any research being ‘not perfect’, we must examine the forms of physical world and its manifestations. The world is divisible into three broader components: physical world, living and social, and any research will fall within one of these three broader domains. Now let us examine each of these domains to find why the statement ‘Research is not perfect’ holds true.
The physical world: The physical word is a material world composed of substances in several forms which continue to be under influence of the nature’s forces, visible and invisible, in space and time. What holds true at a place in January will not hold true in June or September due to change of the position of the Earth, and thus the season; what will hold true in day will not hold true in night. Innumerable variables are at interplay giving rise to innumerable new variables, varied outcome under different sets of conditions. Any research, be it in the field of sciences or humanities, can only be held valid under a given set of variables, and the moment variables and research conditions change, the outcome may change. The physical world is governed by forces, which interact with each other, yet fundamental forces of nature do not change by themselves, like the gravity on Earth, speed of light, composition of hydrogen, density of water, and so on. But each principle can be exploited with tools and techniques for some desired outcome for human use, depending upon the sophistication of the techniques, and tools available, and used. Thus a research which is ‘not-Perfect’ in broader sense if judged in the light of its completion in a given time, budget, and has fulfilled the objective, it becomes ‘Perfect’.
The living world: The world of living organisms is made possible due to the presence of life sustaining elements and systems on Earth. The life is under direct influence of natural forces. Anything that disturbs life sustaining forces will disturb the life on Earth. The living world is evolving and changing overtime. This provides unlimited space or opportunities to conduct research in living world to develop, evolve and grow, making it ‘not-Perfect’ in general, but being ‘Perfect’ when it serves the objective.
The social world: Art and humanities: The man has evolved as a social animal having capability to think, organize, plan, research, acquire knowledge, invent, adopt tools and technologies, and improve his social environment on regular basis by offsetting the existing conditions, and by evolving new societal norms and practices. This ever evolving social environment is a dynamic system, and thus at any given point the conditions are not perfect, and therefore no research endeavor is ‘Perfect’ in broader meaning. But research is ‘Perfect’ in limited sense as explained above.
Natural world as driver of ‘not-Perfect’ research: Whatever exists in our physical word is determined by natural forces, and the influences of natural forces traverse through all spheres of human activities and pursuits, and manifest into complex sets of effects. We humans can divide our life, as it concerns us, into three domains: living, nonliving and social. Human life evolves and continues by relative understanding and exploitation, and ever changing perception of our relationship between fellow humans, elements of nature, and those complex set of influences.
Research is thus a very complex pursuit to follow, with an existing space provided on every frontier, as an opportunity to explore in every conceivable and non-conceivable direction, over time, an innate property of the nature. And this is what it makes it difficult to reach the end point of a given research, as new opportunities open up overtime, linearly, or as side chains, in a branching fashion, or as parallel opportunities, or as unrelated side chain ‘spin off’ of the research with a different objective.
Research endeavors: Humanities versus sciences:
In general, research carried out in any field, irrespective of the sciences or humanities, is an endeavor which is far from being perfect; though, research is more quantifiable in sciences than in humanities. The reason being that in humanities there is greater room for bias, individual views, opinions, role of social hierarchy leading to overall subjectivity in deciding the outcome of research and its applications. In sciences, however, the objectivity is greater due to factual findings, supported by automated machines and instruments. In sciences, standardized conditions for data collection are common, and for certain biological disciplines it is mandatory to adopt good laboratory practices for generation of data otherwise data will not be acceptable to regulatory agencies. These set of conditions are expected to provide more accurate data.
In spite of the use of defined conditions for research in most disciplines, research in any field of science is far from perfect, and is under constant improvements due to new emerging technologies providing greater vision and scope for analysis in research, and advancements of knowledge. Therefore, due to the fluidity of research in general, it is not valuable to draw a line between sciences and humanities, and thus engage in discussion in more general context of research as such. To further enlarge the scope of discussion on the subject, ‘there is no hope for doing perfect research’ it is worth finding out the various types and characteristics of research, and their relationship in achieving ‘Perfect’ research. The analysis follows.
Types of research:
Weather a research is perfect or not, dependents upon the type of research. Research can be of several types:
Blue-sky research is a nascent or emerging discipline. Researches in such a field are never perfect due to rapid progress, due to fast changing evidence, evolving theories, and use of new tools and techniques.
Fundamental and basic research revolutionize current and old thinking, and opens new horizons. Researches in these areas set milestones, but these are never perfect due to advances at a faster pace due to the use of new tools and techniques.
Applied research enables utilization of fundamental and basic research for development of technologies and products for commercial application and as social goods. The technologies and products which stand in use over a period of time are examples of ‘Perfect’ research until the products are replaced by improved substitutes.
In addition there are advances in disguise, which are more superficial research, for quick application on ground. Products of such research phases out quickly, examples, newer applications in computers, softwares, mobile versions, etc.
Characteristics of research:
Research operates in time and space: Progress in research in any discipline depends upon the existing state-of-the-art knowledge. Thus a new discipline with no existing knowledge in the field, except the fundamental knowledge, has opportunities to grow faster, and thus every research that comes through in this field will be less perfect and short-lived.
Research has a life-span: Any research is time-dependent, and has is a life-span depending upon the progress of research in that field. There is a beginning and an end point of any research finding, the end point, however, does not mean its death, but its reduced importance or obsolescence.
Research value determines perfection: Perfection of a research changes with its practical use, application, technological failure, and social perception of its importance. Research leading to a drug is ‘Perfect’, as long as it is safe, but the moment it records side effects, the research becomes ‘not-Perfect’ due to technological failure, and social perception as a harmful drug.
In the absence of democratic settings in conventional societies, top-down approach is applied in decision taking about the quality of research. Such research is meaningless as the perception of the society for which the research aims at is not the deciding force in formulating policies. For example, some government wants to establish an atomic plant at a place, based on its independent feasibility studies and research data. But, the public interest groups, armed with their own survey findings, environmental concerns, expected human suffering due to displacement of communities, damage to environment and loss of rare biological diversity, want the plant located at some other place. In such research, there is a loss of value due to non-involvement of stakeholders, and therefore it is ‘not-Perfect’ research.
Thus, when the research perspective changes, the research value changes. A change of government can overnight reverse the decision, though the set of research findings are the same. A different viewpoint changes or reverses the research value. Some research outcome considered valuable by one government may not find appreciation by another government, and may be dubbed as a waste due to a different view point. In these situations research is ‘not-perfect’ perception moves a step further, research becomes volatile!
Measurement of research:
In order to judge whether a research is perfect or not, there is a need to measure the outcome of research. Research is a complex multi-dimensional pursuit, and therefore it can’t be measured by any single criterion. There are several criteria in vogue to measure research; some of the criteria are explained below:
Criteria for completion of research, and fulfillment of objectives: (i) compilation of research findings on completion of research in the form of a report; (ii) publication of research findings in peer- reviewed journals, or publication in high impact factor journals, not below a definite rating; (iii) completion of research in a given setting/population/cases/patients, etc.; (iv) achievement of objectives.
Criteria for standards of research /publication, and fulfillment of standards: This is a practice adopted by research faculties and institutions engaged in sponsored research. Development of a technology or product of specified standard implies the research has fulfilled its objective, and the research is perfect. Similarly, the publication of research findings in a reputed peer- reviewed journals and high impact factor journals is considered as equal to perfect research.
Criteria of Research Funding /Peer-recognition/awards/ honors: A research group that is able to draw huge funds from grant agencies and sponsors supports the view that the group is involved in conducting valuable research. Similarly, recognitions bestowed upon researchers by academies, organizations/governments are indicators of the acceptance of research, and such recognitions amount to quality research.
Where research satisfies the criteria of its measurements it justifiably achieves fulfillment of research objective and qualifies as ‘Perfect’ research, even though it still follows the cardinal principle of being ‘not-Perfect’ research and is subject to improvements in the future.
Factors that enable ‘Perfect’ research:
There are several factors which determine the research output, quality, applicability, innovation and weather it is perfect or not. Factors which influence research are:
Resources: Financial, infrastructure and facilities, human; each of the factor influence research outcome and its quality and hence, the ‘Perfect’ nature.
Time-gap/period: Any development called ‘Perfect’ research is time-dependent, and is seldom achieved in haste.
Existing state-of-the art: An area already having advanced field has greater chances for ‘Perfect’ research.
An Objective: There has to be an objective for completion of a research, though some outcome may not be foreseeable and it may be serendipitous or chance finding.
In the large number of fields of research, be it sciences, social sciences and humanities, the Griffiths belief that no research is ‘Perfect’ holds true everywhere. But this is not applicable in a narrow set of conditions when the research is carried out with a defined objective and goals, with a given budget, given skilled human resource, and a time limit, and it fulfills the objectives. Such research is undoubtedly ‘Perfect’ in a limited sense. But as the objectives change, and all other conditions change, the research qualifies ‘not-Perfect’ option. Perfect research is not necessarily dependent upon large budget as required in drug R&D. A drug becomes obsolete soon needing a new drug to meet new challenges of quality, efficacy and safety. Similarly, celebrated computer software, or a research into the status of women education in a tribe, development , and so on, will change with change in perspectives, policy and demands.