What is good science?

Scientific knowledge is important in today’s knowledge society. Research is the guarantor of the quality of knowledge, though it is often not clear how scientific research guarantees the reliability of knowledge. How different can scientific ideals be, and how alike are they despite everything? In her dissertation, the historian of ideas Rangnar Nilsson, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, examines what fits within the frames of the domains of authorised scientific knowledge.

The author of the dissertation has compared the way researchers in three different disciplines describe and assess quality within their own disciplines. The disciplines studied are political science, literature studies and physics. The aim is to investigate how the internal view on the quality and legitimacy of research and science varies within the research communities and how it can be linked to different conditions of the scientific activity.

The study is based on judgements of what constitutes good and bad science and research in statements of opinions written by subject experts on the work submitted as qualifications by candidates for academic positions. It covers two periods between 1950 and 1995. This allows similarities and differences between the subjects as well as changes and constant features over time to be analysed.

In the study, the variation in researchers’ conceptions and descriptions of their own science is linked to some internal conditions such as which research objects are studied and the conditions they place on the work.

Rangnar Nilsson establishes that the nature of the objects seems to be able to influence the aim towards internationalisation or to reaching out to the public with their work and results.

The physicists consider internationally presented research to be better and more credible, while the literature researchers are much more interested in the researchers’ efforts to disseminate their research to the general public in different ways. This difference may be linked to the conditions of the two research areas. The physicians’ research objects are equally accessible to researchers around the world, and in time equally inaccessible to the public around the world. This may have contributed to the greater internationalisation of physics (and possibly other areas of natural science). The literature researchers’ objects, however, are easier to share with the Swedish general public, as the subject has traditionally devoted itself more to Swedish than foreign literature.

Political science shows a clear shift towards greater interest, over time, in internationalised research. In internal quality evaluations, however, there is little interest in the candidates’ contacts with the surrounding community. This is despite the fact that political scientists so often seem to appear in media in different contexts, and that their research has come to deal with topical political processes and events to a high degree. In their intra-disciplinary evaluations, political scientists are seen as focusing much more closely on their own research community than any of the other disciplines. Maybe this is because the social sciences are relatively young disciplines in which clearly professionalised researchers have set the agenda from the start.

This makes it clear in the dissertation that different factors influence the researchers’ own view on the scientific activity and their own work.

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