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How to formulate a good research problem? Part 2

This time we talk about challenges related to the formulation of a research problem and about ideas for interesting research with Dr. Tomasz Michalak, leader of IDEAS NCBR’s work team.

11 August 2022

A “good research problem” – what does it actually mean? How can it be described?

TM: It is difficult to answer this question explicitly. In the case of theoretical works, a scientist can work on a completely abstract problem, the solution of which does not necessarily have practical applications at a given moment, but the method used to solve it can be innovative. In this case, the process itself, the way of approaching the problem, is an important discovery and can potentially be applied in other situations. What is the Holy Grail in my field is the definition of a research problem that is inspired by a real need, for which no one has yet found a solution, or those proposed do not meet certain criteria. Once solutions already exist, you work on improving or optimizing them.

What mistakes do young scientists most often make when looking for an idea for a study?

TM: I often encounter a situation in which young scientists, when looking for new research problems, rely mainly on the hitherto knowledge acquired from studies and on only a random analysis of literature. The result is defining, and then solving, problems that are often just an incremental extension of existing knowledge. Moreover, the motivation for such problems often draws from the fact that a young scientist is able to develop a solution, and not the importance of the topic in itself. A much better approach is to get out of your comfort zone, i.e. spend more time learning about the literature on the subject to understand which problems are really crucial.

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Where to look for inspiration?

TM: I recommend reading the works of the best authors in a given field. In such publications, essential, yet unsolved, research problems are often identified. They can be ambitious and difficult, but this is why they are interesting. Conferences and scientific workshops are also a very important source of inspiration. Unfortunately, over the years of the pandemic, scientific meetings were held remotely – out of necessity. This has its advantages but, in my opinion, it is not possible to recreate the unique atmosphere of scientific meetings during which many extremely interesting conversations between scientists from different centers or fields take place behind the scenes, which often results in defining very interesting research problems and establishing a completely new cooperation.

When thinking about a research problem, do scientists take into account any external factors? Does what is happening in the world or the ease of obtaining financing affect this process?

TM: Of course it does. One of the external factors that influence the research is personal experience. These can be the daily difficulties that we encounter, that complicate life. It may be an overheard story about a business challenge or a difficulty that is so interesting that we will think that it is worth taking a closer look at. Another factor that can affect the subject of research are, for example, civilizational challenges or geopolitical situation (such as issues related to digitization or environmental protection). These are issues that are of great interest at the global, European or national level and are a priority in terms of resources spent on research in these areas.

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