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The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method

Scientific research is a way of investigating the world that allows us to draw testable conclusions about how it works. It is an ongoing process, in which researchers test, reshape and retest their ideas in the light of new evidence.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is often credited with being the father of the modern scientific method, which is used in all research. It is based on inductive methods that can be used to draw conclusions based on limited observation.

To start with, researchers draw up an idea, or hypothesis, based on available evidence and observations, such as the results of previous experiments. Then the scientists carry out carefully designed studies, or experiments, to test their hypothesis. They collect and record detailed information and measurements, and analyze the data to see if it supports their idea or not. (see schematic below)

It is also important that results are reproducible and reliable. Researchers will repeat the same experiment several times to make sure they get the same result. And they will also use controls (A sample in which a factor whose effect is being estimated is absent or is held constant, in order to provide a comparison), to ensure that their results are real.

The scientific method is depicted in this figure:

1. The four key stages that build on each other are shown in the center, blue boxes:

Entails both formal and informal observation.

Articulates the research question in a testable format (experiment or clinical trial).

Entails experimentation. Clinical trials are experiments that involve patients.

Validates or modifies the hypothesis. The conclusion generally leads to additional observation and experimentation.


2. The green clouds on the right side of figure provide examples of activities involved in each stage.

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3. The pink clouds on the left side of the figure are the processes involved in moving through the four stages of the scientific method:

  • The Concept Development Process gathers observations from a variety of sources and frames a formal research question and testable hypothesis. In clinical research, this process often results in a trial concept document. The "what" and "why" questions raised in the observation stage are particularly relevant to this process.
  • Experimental Design Process translates the research question about a population of interest into a formal experiment or clinical trial protocol. The protocol includes patient eligibility requirements, detailed descriptions of the experimental and control interventions, as well as definition of objective, measurable outcomes.
  • Statistical Inference uses probability theory to draw conclusions about populations based on observations in samples. The more observations that are taken, the more likely the observation will hold for the entire population. Statisticians help design and analyze experiments/trials so that scientists can attempt to control the number of wrong conclusions drawn and to know how many patients are needed for any given study.

Sharing results

Scientists regularly publish their findings in academic journals, so other researchers around the world can see what they have discovered and test their conclusions. The best journals have a strict process of peer review, meaning that other experts scrutinize new research before it is published.

Building a body of knowledge

By publishing research findings, scientists build up a body of scientific evidence that supports an idea. It also means that ideas can change over time, as new evidence to support or overturn an idea comes to light. And advances in technology mean that we can look at old questions in a new way.

New research often supports and builds on an established idea, in which case the hypothesis becomes stronger. But sometimes, new results can appear to contradict a conventional idea. In that case more experiments are needed to see which result is reproducible and therefore more likely to be correct.

There are often large gray areas where the results go back and forth with different conclusions while this body of knowledge is being built up. This period is often difficult for all including patients and advocates who may grasp hold of an idea only to see it change and sometimes even disappear from accepted beliefs - we are seldom talking black and white.


CISN Summary

  • Researchers falls into different fields depending on the type of research they conduct: basic, translational, clinical or epidemiology.
  • The scientific method involves various steps that can take many years and many hundreds of thousands of dollars before a result can be 'believed'.


  • Consider asking each person that you vote for if they support funding for cancer research.



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