Why is more research needed? This simple phrase can greatly affect the portrayal of scientific research, and we need to explore why.
Written by: Mariam Zaki
Art by: Yang Xin
How many times have you heard the phrase ‘more research is needed’? The phrase is so overused that in a simple Google search it was mentioned a staggering 1, 400,000,000 times! Narrowing this down to a stricter Google Scholar search, this number is reduced to just 6,590,000 results. Is this science’s most overused cliché, or do scientists actually mean what they say?
Even in the best of research papers, the concluding paragraph will most likely end with: ‘more research is needed’ or the paraphrase ‘further research is required’. To be honest, we may never reach an endpoint in scientific research, mainly because science is a continuous process (you can argue that this sounds like a cliché too). Scientists are constantly working to find out new information about things such as pioneering medications, our understanding of space, climate change, gravitational waves… the list goes on.
These are all growing fields of science, and there’s still plenty we need to discover. Besides, science doesn’t undergo a paradigm shift every day, so most of the ongoing scientific research has to build upon previous knowledge: the limitations of this can sometimes handicap the advancement of research in the field. In this case, more research is needed.
Clichés causing confusion and distrust
A recent piece of research published in 2014 stated that sweeteners may be a cause of diabetes, but the study was inconclusive and ‘more research was needed’. This potentially conveyed the message that the research was not worth the time, effort or money spent on it, since it didn’t come out with any definitive results or advice for the consumer. To a member of the general public, this doesn’t sound reassuring, nor does it provide a definite answer to the issue at hand. But for the scientist, there is no choice but to say ‘more research is needed’; their position as scientists means they should acknowledge gaps in the science and any uncertainties. It would be irresponsible not to.
Confusion in the media
The media (newspapers, television, radio etc.) is one of the main sources of scientific information for the general public, so it’s important that everything communicated is factually accurate and spreads the right message. A phrase like ‘more research is needed’ can potentially convey a message of uncertainty (even though uncertainty is an unavoidable part of science). As stated in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the effect of uncertainty is amplified (to the audience) according to individual judgements about a particular science’s value. For example, psychology is perceived as the least reliable while forensics is perceived as the most reliable. Teresa Ashe, lecturer in environmental policy at the Open University, also found that sometimes journalists miscommunicate the statistical evidence of research and its degrees of ‘uncertainty’.
Confusion in politics
This leads us to the problem of uncertainty and how a statement like ‘more research is needed’ could affect evidence-based policymaking. Policymakers don’t have enough time to gather copious amounts of information before coming to a conclusion, as they have to make swift decisions about scientific research and its future impacts. Paul Cairney (professor of politics and public policy at University of Stirling) demonstrates that there are two ways that policymakers do this: 1) by using evidence which meets their targets, and 2) relying on their feelings and gut instincts to make a decision quickly. The ‘complex system’ of policymaking doesn’t allow time for uncertainty and waiting for the publication of more research; this means that some issues may be neglected, due to the scientific evidence not reaching the policymaker at the right time.
Science communication is key…
Simply put, it’s important for scientists to be the ones to directly communicate (either via their own social media or blogs) when, where and why more research is needed, and to reassure the public and policymakers that this is not a ‘redundant claim’ synonymous with uncertainty. It’s not enough to rely on science journalists to communicate science efficiently; scientists have a responsibility to share their research directly with the general public and ensure that science journalists get their message across correctly.
‘More research is needed’ shouldn’t be a worrying sentence: it just means that science is not finite, there’s still a lot more to find out. More research could be the difference between uncertainty and certainty, providing better scientific knowledge for everyone.