What is Science? What is Research?

Key message: Science is new reproducible and useful knowledge. Research is the search for new reproducible and useful knowledge.


What is the origin of science and research?

Human beings try to satisfy their needs e. g. for energy, shelter or reproduction. Human beings are special because with their superior knowledge they can satisfy their needs much better and they can improve their living conditions considerably. This is why they are attempting to expand their knowledge. In addition the human need for self-actualization is satisfied by finding new knowledge.


"Science is valued by society because the application of scientific knowledge helps to satisfy basic human needs and improve living standards." (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4198034, 21.08.19)


The word science comes from the Latin word "scientia", meaning knowledge. Scientist do research. Research is the attempt to discover new knowledge. To find new knowledge is difficult, to repeat what someone else has already found is not research.


"Let us try to understand by what reasoning we can call a work scientific. We can still take as a model the natural sciences as they have been defined since the beginning of the modern period. In this sense, research is scientific when it fulfills the following conditions:

  1. The research deals with a specific object, defined so that others can identify it ...
  2. The research says things that have not yet been said about this object, or it revises the things that have already been said from a different perspective ...
  3. The research is useful to others ...
  4. The research provides the elements required to verify or disprove the hypotheses it presents, and therefore it provides the foundation for future research ..." (Umberto, Eco (2015). How to Write a Thesis. The MIT Press)

Point 1 is not necessary to mention because it is not possible to verify or disprove a hypothesis about a thing that others cannot identify (point 4). So three points remain:


Definition: Science is new reproducible (comprehensible) and useful knowledge.


Definition: Research is the search for new reproducible (comprehensible) and useful knowledge.


Reproducibility means that other scientist can achieve the same results with the same methods as in the original work. This requires that these methods have been described in sufficient detail.


What is useful knowledge?

"… if we lived in an unpredictable world, where things changed in random or very complex ways, we were not be able to figure things out. But we live in an … universe, where things change, but according to patterns, rules, or as we call them, laws of nature. … And so it becomes possible to figure things out. We can do science, and with it we can improve our lives." (Sagan, C. (2013). Cosmos. New York: Randon House Publishing Group, p. 41)

Knowledge is useful when we can use it for explanations and predictions to improve our lives.

"Science is a systematic enterprise that builds, organizes, and shares knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about nearly everything in the Universe." (Chang M (2014) Principles of Scientific Methods. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group)

When a scientist finds very useful knowledge, knowledge that can improve many lives, knowledge with a "substantial impact", she or he gets the Nobel Prize, watch this video:

"How to win the Nobel Prize? Part1: criteria" (www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/how-to-win-the-nobel-prize-part-1-criteria/1017510.article, 24.08.19)


Is science “true” knowledge?

Is science true because it is derived from objective facts? Objective facts can not prove that science is true because the observation of facts can change in the light of new knowledge and through the use of new technology. Even if the facts should be objective their interpretation may change.

“If observation of the world is carried out in a careful, unprejudiced way then the facts established in this way will constitute a secure, objective basis for science. [?] … First establish the facts and then build your theory to fit them. Both [1] the fact that our perceptions depend to some extent on our prior knowledge and hence on our state of preparedness … and [2] the fact that observation statements presuppose the appropriate conceptual framework … indicate that it is a demand that is impossible to live up to.” (Chalmers, A. F. (1999). What Is This Thing Called Science? Open University Press)

The first human beings derived their knowledge from observations. From then on prior knowledge and observation interact to produce new knowledge (new theories).

“Falsificationists freely admit that observation is guide by and presupposes theory. They are also happy to abandon any claim that theories can be established as true or probably true in the light of observational evidence. … Once proposed, speculative theories are to be rigorously and ruthlessly tested by observation and experiment. Theories that fail to stand up to observational and experimental tests must be eliminated and replaced by further speculative conjectures. … Only the fittest theories survive. Although it can never be legitimately said of a theory that it is true, it can hopefully be said that it is the best available …” (Chalmers, A. F. (1999). What Is This Thing Called Science? Open University Press)

Science is new knowledge and new knowledge is still uncertain. It is not relevant whether knowledge is true. Relevant is whether this knowledge is actually the most useful one.

“If the results of a study do not reject the existing hypothesis, the hypothesis … persists, but one cannot be sure that it is correct—it just represents the currently best available explanation until it is rejected and replaced by a better one. Failure to reject a hypothesis must not be interpreted as verification of that particular hypothesis …“ (Starck J.M. (2017) How Science Works. In: Scientific Peer Review. essentials. Springer Spektrum, Wiesbaden)


How to gain new knowledge?

In principle, there are two ways of gaining new knowledge: induction and deduction.


1. Induction

Induction is the process of interferring a general principle (a general rule) from observing (measuring) the word as it is or experiments. By observation or measurement a scientitist collects intformation (data). The collection is influenced by the actual state of knowledge and the actual state of technology. For induction scientists can use their own data or the data of other scientists. From the data the scientist infers a general principle called hypothesis because the principle has not yet been proved (a 100% prove is not possible, see above). The hypothesis can be proved by a deduction.


2. Deduction

For deduction two definition exist.The Oxford English Dictionary definition of deduction is "inference by reasoning from generals to particulars" or "the process of deducing from something known or assumed ..." To deduce means "to draw as a conclusion from something known or assumed, to infer". (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=, 08.09.19) In the images below the definition "decuding from something known" is called "deductive reasoning".


What is Science? What is Research? How to gain new knowledge with induction and deduction? - www.learn-study-work.org

What is the research process?

A scientist has a field of expertise. Within this field she reads the current literature, listens to presentations of other scientists and works practically. In this way she knows the big and small problems in her field of expertise that need to be solved. For one of these problems she has an idea for an inquiry or for a solution. For this research idea she formulates a precise research question (or a research hypothesis). The answer to this question is the objective of her research. Now she has two possibilities:

  1. She can study the existing knowledge and tries to answer her research question by "deductive reasoning".
  2. She collects her own data (observations) and tries to answer the question by "inductive reasoning".

Normally a scientist starts with the first possibility and conducts a literature review. When this not successful she plans her own research project. For a project she sets up a research design. Finally she plans the details and conducts the methods to get the desired information (data).

The data are documented by using words, figures, tables, illustrations and statistics. From the data she draws conclusions and answers her research question.


The following images shows the research process:


What is the research process? - www.learn-study-work.org

What is a research design?

A method is the way to a goal. For a simple goal, one method might be enough. If the goal is complex many methods have to be applied in a logical order and several subgoals must be achieved before it is possible to reach the final goal. A comprehensive plan is necessary. In research this plan is called “research design”.


“The conceptual phase is the initial phase of research and involves the intellectual process of developing a research idea into a realistic and appropriate research design. … The research design is the overall plan for conducting a study that will optimize the ability to achieve the study purpose and obtain accurate results.” (www.esourceresearch.org, Design Decision in Research: The Conceptual Phase - Page 4, The Design and Planning Phase - Page 11, 10.08.19)


“The term design describes the overall plan and structure of a peace of research … A design can be regarded as the framework into which particular methods are fitted. … Research methods are the specific techniques employed in the execution of a piece of research.” (Sim J, Wright C (2000) Research in Health Care: Concepts, Designs and Methods. Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Thornes)


What is a research design? A research design is a set of methods and subgoals. - www.learn-study-work.org