Sunday, July 29, 2018

Research ideas, part 1: It’s not magic

As researchers, ideas are arguably our most valuable form of currency, and generating new ideas is a requirement for becoming an independent scientist. However, relatively few resources are available to offer guidance on this process.  Early in my career, I thought that generating ideas was a magical process where I had to wait for inspiration to come to me. However, over time I’ve come to appreciate that it really can be a systematic and reliable practice.  In this series of blog posts, I’ll outline how to generate ideas, how to vet and refine those ideas, and how to manage all of the thoughts and information that you gather along the way. This month, it seems only right to start at the beginning with the question: Where do research ideas come from?

Nothing is new. A key misconception in generating research ideas is that you need to create something entirely new out of nothing.  But, the fact is that almost nothing in the realm of research ideas is completely new.  Even in the rare instances that scientists uncover something truly novel or unexpected, it is usually because they were looking for something else based on existing knowledge. Recognizing this frees us up to think about how we can build compelling ideas by embracing the foundation of current knowledge or technology.  In my view, there are four different approaches for this construction process:

  • Apply: Can I use an existing technology or approach to address a different unsolved problem or unmet need in science?
  • Elaborate: Is there something important that this technology can’t do? Can I think of a different approach that could fill that gap?
  • Connect: Is there a connection or potential synergism between these technologies, theories, or ideas that nobody has realized yet?
  • Explore: Is there something important that we don’t yet know or understand? Is there a way to gain the missing knowledge? What could we do once we have that knowledge?

Every moment is an opportunity for inspiration. As I mentioned above, a second key misconception that I used to struggle with is the idea that I had to carve out “idea generation time” and then sit and wait passively for inspiration to strike (or not strike) me. While it is a great practice to have dedicated “thinking time” set aside in your schedule, most ideas strike when we are actively doing something.  This goes hand in hand with the realization that nothing is new.  If most ideas are going to build upon the foundation of existing knowledge or technology, then ideas are most likely to bubble up when you are actively engaged with the world around you. The great news about this is that almost all parts of your day can be turned into “idea generation time.”  A few of my favorite opportunities for inspiration have included:

  • reading the literature
  • listening to seminars or conference talks
  • working in lab
  • talking with colleagues
  • talking with non-scientists
  • everyday life activities – exercise, shopping, driving
  • sleeping…?

If you are new to the process of generating research ideas, I hope that this framework does a bit to demystify the process and get you started. Multiplying the diversity of types of ideas with the numerous opportunities for inspiration, it becomes clear that even in an average day, you can generate a lot of ideas! That is encouraging, but can also feel overwhelming. Next month, we’ll discuss why this high quantity is necessary for achieving high quality with your research ideas, and how to confront the challenges that it can pose.