Understanding the goals of science

Whether you have a natural curiosity about how things work or you’re considering pursuing science as a career path, there’s no denying the intrigue of increasing your knowledge to improve the world. Prepare to investigate the goals of science, discover the steps inherent to the scientific method, and learn how to increase your own scientific expertise.

What are the goals of science?

The most basic goal of science is to describe through careful observation. For example, if a researcher wants to increase their understanding of how ketamine may be used to help improve outcomes in those with treatment-resistant depression (TRD), they could start by looking for published articles on the topic in scientific research journals.

In this article published by The American Journal of Psychiatry, for instance, the research showed clinically and statistically significant decreases in the symptoms of TRD for those who took ketamine and an antidepressant vs. those who received an antidepressant and a placebo. In another study published by JAMA Psychiatry, nasal-delivered ketamine (plus the use of a regular antidepressant) helped people stay in remission from TRD 16 weeks into treatment.

Regarding primary research, a scientist could also choose to survey a large sample of people with TRD who’ve undergone ketamine treatment from a certified medical professional and ask them to report on how it affected their symptoms.

Second goal

The second goal of science is to use the data that has been observed to predict the outcome of a specific situation. For example, in both studies mentioned above, the use of ketamine and an antidepressant was correlated with a decrease in depression symptoms. Researchers could use this information to predict that a TRD patient who continues a long-term treatment plan of both ketamine and an antidepressant is more likely to see a cessation of symptoms than a TRD patient who uses an antidepressant alone. To prove that this prediction is correct, long-term testing would need to be implemented.

Third goal

The third goal of science is to determine and explain the cause of a behavior or outcome. For instance, a researcher may try to understand the mechanisms through which ketamine reduces TRD symptoms. One avenue to investigate is the premise that by binding to NMDA receptors in the brain, ketamine may increase the amount of glutamate in the spaces between neurons—which then activates connections in the AMPA receptors. A scientist may ask whether this blockade of NMDA receptors and activation of AMPA receptors releases molecules that help neurons communicate along new pathways, thus affecting cognition, thought patterns, and mood.

Basic science

At the heart of it all, basic science is motivated by curiosity. The goal of basic, or “pure,” science is to gain knowledge of a particular field of study regardless of how it will ultimately be used. Although expanding knowledge is the objective, rather than focusing on developing a product or service, basic science can still lay the groundwork that leads to practical applications or solutions. For example, the basic research involved in mapping the human genome has led to applied research to help diagnose and treat genetic diseases.
Other examples of questions probed by basic science include:

  • What is the universe made of?
  • Why do humans dream?
  • How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics?

Applied science

Applied science uses the data and knowledge obtained through basic science to develop solutions to real-world problems. Oftentimes, this involves developing new technology, such as finding a cure for a specific disease, but the primary difference is that in applied science, the problem is usually defined for the researcher. Some scientists believe it’s necessary to focus less on gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake and more on applied research that addresses the natural world or social problems, but both basic and applied science have inherent value.
Applied researchers may focus on issues such as:

  • Ways to use less water in crop production
  • Creating technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Developing a vaccine for a new virus

What is the scientific method?

If you ever participated in a science fair growing up, then you’re likely well-versed in the scientific method. In simple terms, it’s a methodology that involves asking questions, observing, and seeking answers through experimentation. Typically, a researcher develops a hypothesis, tests it, and then modifies the hypothesis based on the outcome of the experiment. This process is repeated until the hypothesis correlates with both observations and test results. The scientific method is used broadly throughout different fields of science and is integral to the development of scientific theories.

Read on to explore the key steps included in the scientific method.

Ask a question

The first step of the scientific method involves making an observation and defining a question to investigate. The question can be specific or general. For example, perhaps you’ve observed that your otherwise anxious dog seems to relax when classical music is played. A specific question to ask would be, “Does playing classical music reduce anxiety in dogs?” While a more general question would be, “Can music affect a dog’s mood?”

Do background research

The next step is to do research and review any existing data that could help answer your question. You can perform searches in veterinary science journals, browse articles related to veterinary behavioral science, and even interview a regular or behavioral veterinarian to help inform your hypothesis.

Construct a hypothesis

Now, based on your research and observations, it’s time to develop a hypothesis. A well-defined hypothesis makes a measurable prediction that can ultimately be tested through experimentation. For instance, “If I play classical music, my dog’s heart rate and blood pressure will decrease.”

Test your hypothesis

The next step in your methodology involves creating an experiment that evaluates the accuracy of your hypothesis. It’s important that your test is free from your biases and that you control for other variables when making your analysis. It’s also critical that your experiment can be repeated several times to ensure that your results are valid and that others can also evaluate your findings.

For instance, you could measure your dog’s heart rate and blood pressure first thing in the morning (without introducing outside stimuli) and then compare the data to their heart rate and blood pressure first thing in the morning after playing classical music for five minutes.

Analyze your data and draw conclusions

Once you’ve performed your experiment you can collect your data, organize it into tables, graphs, or diagrams, and analyze it to see if it supports your hypothesis. In this case, you can look at the metrics for your dog’s heart rate and blood pressure and compare the differences between the control environment and the test environment.

If you find that there is a statistically significant decrease in heart rate and blood pressure with the introduction of classical music, you can come to the conclusion that your hypothesis is valid. If your hypothesis is disproven, then you can revise it or construct a new one and repeat the process.

Communicate your findings

The final step in the scientific method is to organize your data, create a report, and communicate the results. Professional scientists typically do so by publishing articles in scientific research journals or presenting their findings to colleagues or other scientists at conferences. By sharing the results of their experiments, researchers help to enhance the knowledge base in the field and provide data that may be used by other scientists to solve a related problem.

Enhance your scientific knowledge at Penn LPS Online

Interested in learning about the fundamental principles that underlie scientific discovery and innovation? In the Physical and Life Sciences concentration for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences at Penn LPS Online, you’ll obtain a solid foundation in both branches of science through Ivy League courses in biology, chemistry, and physics.

As you begin to understand how researchers use the scientific method—including interpreting quantitative and qualitative evidence—you’ll discover how to apply scientific research to explain phenomena and events. And you’ll learn how to analyze and evaluate different scientific points of view, approach research with a critical and ethical eye, and effectively communicate findings and debates to diverse audiences.
The skills and knowledge you develop in this credential may be applied to many clinical, health, and research settings and provide a foundation for further graduate study. Potential career paths include:

  • Lab manager
  • Pharmaceutical sales representative
  • Research coordinator

Ready to get started? If you haven’t already, apply to Penn LPS Online today and enroll in the Physical and Life Sciences concentration for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences. You may also register for individual classes or view our course guide to see what’s available in any upcoming term.


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