Scientific research is an art not a craft

Updated: 2014-06-05 07:24

By Chen Yanru (China Daily)

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In the ongoing heated discussion about the pressing need for reform and improvement in graduate education, little, if any, scholarly attention has been focused on one of the key points, namely how to teach scientific research methods and methodologies to graduate students. The most noteworthy and troublesome fact is that the teaching at research-intensive Chinese universities emphasizes merely the operational parts of research, that is the how-to, and neglects the motivation for scientific research, the theoretical foundation for research, and in particular the wise and prudent selection of a research question that has both academic and practical value.

As a result, in some disciplines of the social sciences, graduate students produce theses and dissertations with carefully and skillfully designed research methods, but their research lacks theoretical innovation, insight, and has little more use than earning them a degree that qualifies them as another "research craftsman".

This echoes the question "why can't our universities produce great masters?"

There has long been a tacit understanding among Nobel laureates and world-class thinkers that scientific research is an art not a craft. Of course, most of us have to start out learning it as a craft, but by the time students enter graduate school, their focus should have shifted to the interplay between theory and methods, how empirically grounded research gives rise to theories, and how such theories may still be questioned, thus generating more worthy questions.

But, in fact, what happens most often is students put the cart before the horse by choosing a research method first and then working toward a research question. That is how scientific research degenerates into a craft. Other, better, students may look up the milestones in the history of their discipline, and then simply transfer or borrow from such theories and designs. But what is already known is usually the greatest barrier to knowing what we do not yet know. In other words, the existing body of scientific knowledge, if not sufficiently critiqued and analyzed, may well retard or even prevent innovation.

Thus, it is all the more important to strengthen the organic link between theory and research in training graduate students. Whether they regard scientific research as an art or a craft will have a subtle yet profound impact on the future of China's scientific stamina, and even the larger population's outlook on the world. After all, research should strive to come close and do justice to the expression of the invisible scientific truth, which governs the inner, inter and outer working of the physical, mechanical and human worlds.

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