What is the question?

Our latest installment on Night Science is out in Genome Biology! https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-019-1902-1

The single greatest misunderstanding about science by the public is that scientists solve problems; in reality scientists are primarily concerned with creating them.

It is certainly easier to imagine science as a logical, step-wise process. But it is the generation of a new question in the unpredictable and wandering process of night science that paves our way towards a discovery, effectively changing our perception of reality.

If you compare a list of the great discoveries in the life sciences over the 25 years leading up to 2015 with the list of questions provided early on in this period, you notice very little overlap

Einstein did not have any ‘top 3 open questions’ to start with. What he did have were topics in the form of puzzling observations, puzzling primarily to himself. Einstein wasn’t given the question. He discovered it.

The trouble with trying to solve questions posed by communities is that all the good ones are gone, especially if they can be answered.

We often see knowledge as a wall of information: individual pieces of knowledge fit together like bricks within the wall, summarizing what is known on a particular topic. But this picture gives a false sense of the structure and rigidity of knowledge and its accumulation.

The nature of discoveries is that they are unexpected: they may not fit neatly into our existing edifice of knowledge. Although the research may be originally motivated by a perceived gap, the knowledge may lead to the construction of a completely new and unexpected area

Many young postdocs have been told that as a PhD student their job was to answer questions – now they have to discover their own unknown unknowns.

Framing of a fundamentally new question lies, by definition, beyond what we can expect within our frame of knowledge: while answering a question relies upon logic, coming up with a new question often rests on an illogical leap into the unknown – the hallmark of night science.

In some way, then, night science may be most productive when it has no agenda, when there are no particular questions it is trying to reshape or resolve. When the scientist does not have a hypothesis, she is free to explore, to make connections.

A hypothesis may be a liability that could obstruct a new idea that awaits our discovery. Once night science reframes this question, the researcher can use the full power of day science to solve it. In this sense, a major discovery is typically both the solution and the problem.

If an idea is truly unexpected, then we could not have arrived at it solely through existing questions; instead, we had to navigate through night science, moving from disparate observations to previously unknown questions.

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