by David Woods

The chance to generate new knowledge, to resolve healthcare problems, to benefit mankind – perhaps even to acquire in the process a Nobel Prize and a measure of immortality – ought to make healthcare research a popular, even glamorous endeavour.

But it’s rarely perceived that way. What’s vital, says one ranking academic, is for would-be researchers to develop a “constructive discontent” about the state of knowledge in their particular field.

Another notes rather dryly that research is “narrow, slow, dirty, and inadequately funded, while offering few opportunities and while being conducted by sterile, reference quoting people.”

In fact, the stereotype of the researcher as a determined individualist working in solitary confinement may once have been true; these days, though, with research becoming ever more sophisticated, collaboration is essential. In fact, a large part of investigation is communication with other people.

The fact is, though, that there is money for well-planned, exciting, meaningful and original research. Still, some potential researchers are confused about the application process, or about which of the several agencies they should approach. Some may even be deterred by a notion that the scramble for financing is fiercely competitive, so they have to learn where to begin.

Getting started involves fuelling your idealism and scientific curiosity as early as possible. What that means is being acutely observant, asking intelligent and appropriate questions, gathering all the clues or data and drawing valid conclusions to solve a given mystery.

This begins with an unsolved problem… followed by asking the right questions about it, then developing a working hypothesis and a well reasoned theoretical answer. After that come the protocol, design, method, subjects and equipment for the investigation. And finally the data can be interpreted to answer the original question.

Good clinical investigation can elucidate the cause of the disease, reveal areas of inadequate knowledge and persuade a researcher to ask the basic question and thus get into the research cycle with experimental work. As the president of a British pharmaceutical company is reputed to have said: “You can’t ask mice if they’ve got headaches.”

Nonetheless, research isn’t simply about hard data. Many great discoveries owe themselves to serendipity – to chance, to lucky breaks. One example is Minoxidil. Originally discovered and used as an antihypertensive, it turned out to generate hair growth in its users… and became in addition a blockbuster treatment for baldness. Even so, as has often been said, serendipity comes to the prepared mind, to the researcher who expects the unexpected.

In essence, then, you’ll need to make the theory fit the facts, not the facts fit the theory; you’ll need a thirst for knowledge, and what one prominent researcher calls “a spirit of discontent.” And you’ll need partners.

To be successful you must be highly professional: develop your methodology to a fine pitch, and know unerringly what’s relevant. The professional sets out to answer a question; the amateur sets out to prove something.

Finally, make sure that some proportion of your reading relates to research articles – not just reviews, but specific reports of research activity in areas where you have a particular interest. Go to it!