Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Weird Science

Posted by Joel Halligan

Recently I was chatting with a friend who researches bacterial proteins. My friend was somewhat taken aback by the research methods used in the study I’m working on (questionnaires, food diaries and the like) and, compared to his research, the effort required to collect data. This amused me somewhat: “How else would we do it?” I asked him. He um’d and ah’d but didn’t have an answer. In his mind our research seemed ‘messy’ because our research subjects didn’t behave in as predictable a fashion as his bacteria. Our subjects, being human, are subject to whims and fancies and emotions and, well, real-life; his research subjects don’t require a recruitment strategy with ten phases, they fit snugly on the head of a pin and they don’t eat at McDonalds. I suppose I had to agree with him that, by comparison, our research was indeed ‘messy’, but that in my opinion that’s what makes the research I’m working on much more interesting and enjoyable than his lab-based research.

I reflected on the data collection that I’ve been involved in for the past 8 months and how alien it may seem to somebody like him, with the very same job title as me but working in a very different field of research. My participants have IDs but they also have names. When I visit them or talk to them on the phone to ask them about what they had to eat the day before (part of the research!) they chat to me and, as I’m human, I will chat to them too. This means I don’t just have to remember the protocol and what I need to ask them to make sure I collect the right data, but I also need to remember that they’ve just bred a litter of German Shepherd pups (and how are they all doing?), or that they’ve been somewhere nice on holiday (did you have a nice time?), or that last time I spoke to them their oven broke (and has it now been fixed?). When I arrange to meet them I have to text them to remind them and be prepared to be stood up or rearranged because, surprisingly, the research they’re involved in is less important to them than it is to me. When I visit people at home I have to contend with hairy and excitable Japanese Akitas and ringing phones and doorbells and kids that want to constantly interrupt. I also end up drinking a lot of tea. My friend has none of these issues in his research, the lucky devil, although being plied with tea isn’t so bad.

My friend also seemed discomfited by the ‘lack of control’ he perceived that we had over the many variables that could potentially influence our outcome of interest - in this case whether a cooking skills intervention can influence diet. Again, I playfully asked for his proposed solution. Lock them all in a darkened room with a knife block, portable hob, organic veg box and a series of Jamie’s 15-minute meals on DVD? I don’t think that’d get past the ethics committee, I said. I explained that we do our best to control for this multitude of other variables by randomising participants to one of two study arms. Do you blind them to their allocation, he asked? Er, no, I replied, would we send them on a cooking skills course but tell them they were going on a knitting course and hope that they didn’t realise? He also argued that by telling people we’re recruiting them to take part in a cooking skills course we might generate effects before we’ve even started, regardless of which arm they’re recruited to. I agreed with him to some extent, but explained that it’s difficult enough to recruit participants even when they have the full information beforehand, so imagine how difficult it would be to recruit people to a ‘mystery intervention’, not to mention that darned ethics committee that would no doubt throw a spanner in the works.

After our chat, my friend concluded that he was glad that he didn’t work with humans in his research because he wanted to do scientific experiments, not quasi-scientific experiments (his words). I concluded that I would prefer the latter any day. In my opinion, people are much more fun than single-celled organisms.

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