What Are The Limitations Of Scientific Research?


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The scientific method is a tool just like a hammer. It is inherently amoral, neither immoral or moral. The morality is supplied by the person or group using the scientific method.

As a long time (40+ year) scientist, I can tell you that scientific research does have inherent limitations placed on it. Scientific research is somewhat expensive and the payoff is back-end loaded in the sense that the payoff comes years after the expense and there is no guarantee of payoff. So the only scientific research that gets done is the research which someone (the government, schools, private companies, individuals) choose to fund and support. There may be some brilliant ideas out there but they will never be pursued if they don't get the scarce funds necessary to develop them.

I have known a number of significant scientists and, frankly, they are all quite skillful promoters of their ideas, their research laboratories, etc. Those scientists with great ideas who just want to go in their lab and work have a tough time of it. Those scientific developments that you hear about don't just happen to be publicized, they are very carefully planned, timed, etc. To ensure continuing funding and support for the projects.

Another problem in this vein is "peer review" which is used by major agencies to screen proposals for support funding. A group of scientists meets to decide what other people's ideas get funded. Two problems come out of this:
A) Don't fund XXXX's project because it is too close to mine
b) Don't fund YYYY's project because it is too far out

So one needs to learn to come up with an idea that is just novel enough to be exciting but not so novel as to be wacky.

This "limitation" has always been there. The funding source for the Egyptian scientists were the Pharoahs. The various kings and wealthy patrons of Europe funded renaissance science. Look up Lysenko in the Soviet Union and his support by Stalin.

As far as the more traditional limitations on science, those based on morality, ethics, etc. Each society has its ideas of what those should be. Very typically, there is a conflict between science and religion where science wishes to use the scientific method to determine facts and religious belief uses faith to determine what truth is based on whatever source of faith that particular religions uses. If science then produces a result in conflict with the religious belief, suppression of science is common.

So if there is to be limitation, whose limitations should pertain. An example is George Bush's restriction of stem cell research. This is a clear-cut example of limitation of science. Whether one believes that this is protection of humanity or major retardation of work which might benefit humanity is the difficult question and the answer to that can only be determined finally after the work is done. And with restrictions on funding, the work will not be done. It can be a vicious cycle.

There was a write-up recently on some very nice work proposed to do some rigorous scientific investigation on near-death experiences and out of body experiences in connection with near-death experiences. I have listed a reference. This is a nice attempted application of science to an area with some strong metaphysical and religious overtones.

Another such example is the analytical work on the Shroud of Turin. But that is receiving scrutiny as the analytical results came out different than what the community of faith wanted to hear.

The final limitation comes in publishing the work. There is a common belief that scientific work should be freely published and freely available. Sounds good. But if someone is going to spend their money to support scientific research, unless is strictly an eleemosenary endeavor (lovely word, suggest you look it up if you don't know it), they expect return for their money. And that return means the ability to take favorable advantage of the knowledge and make more money or more benefit themselves. That argues for not publishing the work. Also sounds fair and reasonable. This is one of the reasons for the patent system. One publishes one's work in a particular form and, in return, is granted a limited monopoly to benefit from the knowledge for a limited period of time. The National Institutes of Health has strengthened rules that negative results in medical trials must be published as there has been a substantial tendency to bury results which might negatively impact drug trials. So one limitation might be that results must be published or at least written up for publication after a certain number of years.

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