MY situation…is daunting
I’ve been preparing a manuscript that will describe a series of experiments I performed, aimed at characterizing an issue of abnormal pain after spinal cord injury. This is the hardest part, at least for me, where I have to decide what to include in the report. I’m planning on submitting it for publication before the end of the month.
You spend days working on analyzing data, only to realize that it doesn’t fit into the entire scheme of the project. You’ve spent a lot of time gathering data that doesn’t make sense. There’s that extra data point that winks at you and says: “Ha, now where are you going to put me?”
Ethically, I’m obligated to talk about that piece of esoteric, nonsensical data. The trouble is, I don’t know what to make of it. It’s that werid cousin you have in the family. You don’t know what to do with him when he’s over for dinner, cuz’ he doesn’t eat meat.
Constructing progress: tactics
Trial-and-error, or careful pre-experimental planning? This is a unique challenge. How much time to spend planning, rather than performing the actual experiment is a tactical choice. I could spend weeks and months reading about and planning for a project, or I can perform the project with a few ideas in mind and see where it takes me. Both have their advantages.
Trial-and-error, or the “fishing-expedition”, is used frequently, but not looked upon highly by scientists as the best way to make progress. It’s risky and has a low return of success for the amount of time invested. However, this approach allows a scientist freedom to be creative and innovative.
For example, in the movie “Dolphin Tale“, the scientist in charge of engineering a new prosthetic tail for the dolphin amputee ends up utilizing a trial-and-error approach. Though the scientist studies what he can from the literature and theorizes how the tale ought to function, he doesn’t know until he tries several prothetic flipper-tail designs. Many of these contraptions fail….(see the movie).
Pre-experimental planning is probably the most used approach. It provides a plan for all the potential scenarios for what might happen within an experimental project. It even has an exit strategy, of when to stop the experiment. The time invested is primarily upfront, and once executed, all labor runs through a workflow designed to meet specific objectives.
Now, I’ll admit, I do prefer to start with the strategy of planning just a little bit, then flying by the seat of my pants the rest of the way. I won’t hesitate to try new ideas or different designs, and do so without planning. If it perks my curiosity, I’ll try it for a while. In this way, I work from a solid framework, but I’m not so rigidly held to that plan that I won’t deviate if something interesting pops up that might require more investigation.
Of course, there’s the bottleneck — scientific progress requires two basic resources: time and money. Without these, it doesn’t matter how motivated, creative or talented you are. You don’t make bricks without straw. Another tactic: good funding.