Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Risks involved in Scientific Research

Research, like all human activities involves risks. The risk factor has inhibited many from doing scientific research. How can we overcome this risk factor before it becomes a fear factor? If we can define what the risks involved are to us and to those who fund and work with us , we will be able to handle research better.

Risk is a product of hazard and the probability that this hazard occurs. Hazards can be qualified and even quantified in most cases. I usually list out the possible damages and consider what I can bear. If I can control some of the probabilities I would proceed to do what I want to do. How can we train ourselves to be good in predicting probabilities and how much faith have we got in our own predictions? Actuarists are trained to do predictions and produce what they considered as probabilities. Most actuarists are involved with money matters –predicting on investments and insurance products etc. I do not know of any general prescription to calculate risks of research projects. The poor science research workers will have to depend more on themselves and their partners to predict the probabilities of their projects and sell them accordingly. It can be done and some of us have learned how to do this. For those who are in charge of policies and funding they have their own problems. They have to evaluate projects or count on consultants, both local and foreign, to help them. This approach can also generate lots of disagreements and frustrations.

As a student, the important risks and damages we have to consider include:
1. Loss of time, effort, tenure, opportunities and funds.
2. Getting the wrong supervisor and being involved in the wrong topics.
3 Stress caused by wrong choice that affects our peace of mind and health.

The above risks hold for most people who decides to do research. Many feel they can afford the above. What they often lack is funding and infrastructure support. As a student your supervisor is responsible to find the funds. You have to be a good student if you want to do research.

Our needs change with age, status and our responsibilities. These changes will affect the type of risks we have to handle. I will share with you my experience in research in the form of case studies and anecdotes. These will include attitudes and experience of :

1. Some students ,
2. young professionals,
3. heads of department,
4. Directors of Boards/ companies and
5. Chairmen/CEOs of statutory boards and private companies where research is done.

You can then decide whether a research career is what you want. My own views are that research is a very worthwhile activity to be involved in if you can handle the situations that confront you from time to time.

Lee Kum Tatt

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