A question of questions…

I was asked a few weeks ago to give some advice on how to write a research proposal.  I’m neither qualified nor able to give a definitive  guide to writing a research proposal.  I can, however, describe the process that I  go through, and make a few suggestions.

The first thing you need is  a research question.  This doesn’t need to be phrased as a question but it can be.  I suspect some areas of science would call this the hypothesis but I don’t generally think in those terms.  As I think about it, there are probably two kinds of questions: one that proposes a piece of research as  a solution to a problem; one that proposes a piece of research for its own sake.  Most of my research questions are framed in problem solving terms because I find it easier to identify a problem, define the limits within which the ideal solution resides and come up with a chemical system that meets the requirements.

The generic format of problem based questions would be : Can [RESEARCH] be used to solve [PROBLEM]?  For example, can dendrimers be used to deliver anticancer drugs and reduce side effects? [Research = dendrimer drug delivery of chemotherapy; problem  = chemotherapy has side effects]  Or, can dendrimers be used to remediate heavy metals from ground water? [Research = dendrimer chelators; problem = heavy metal contamination of ground water].

The generic format of research for its own sake questions could be: Can [RESEARCH IDEA] be done?  For example, can molecules with highly branched and perfect architectures be synthesised? [Research = dendrimer chemistry].

Now, I’ll play cynic for a while here and note that with the drive towards greater commercialisation of research, problem based questions may be seen as more popular, with greater potential.  That is not necessarily a position I agree with and is very much field dependent.   We also have to remember that not all questions are created equal, and not all problems are equally worthy of solving.   Again that’s often field (and grant scheme) specific.

Part 2: Got a question? What’s next?  – coming soon…