Science is a human activity that creates new knowledge in a comprehensible form. Precisely the requirement of order and hence a degree of universality determines the original idea, the hypothesis, as an exit point emerging from the descriptive data. This concept of science can be used across all scientific disciplines whether natural science such as medicine, or humanistic or social sciences such as anthropology all of which are applicable and necessary in a maritime context.
Research describes the thorough scientific study of an area, for example the aetiology or the pathophysiology of a disease such as seasickness. Anyone can in principle engage in independent research. It is, however, mostly associated with university recruited academic staff. The word "research" is often used in a sense that is virtually synonymous with science. However, the two words are also used differently. Much research has too low a level of ambition to be called science. In addition, the choice between the two words can be about the balance between collection and processing of data, so that research may often represent the primarily active outreach but without necessarily processing the collected data. In contrast, science deals more often with the organization, processing and interpretation of data than with collecting them.
Research is considered to be an important driver in the development of any part of society including maritime settings, be it in terms of economic prosperity, sustainable development, or quality of life including health and safety - to mention the most important areas.
The research process. Basic research, applied research, and development work
The research process will always aim to improve the understanding of a phenomenon or to make a positive difference for those involved. Maritime research and development is therefore creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase scientific and technical knowledge, including the understanding of man in the maritime environment, and of the culture and society at sea. The ultimate aim would be to exploit the existing understanding to devise new practical applications to the benefit of seafarers and fishermen.
Basic research is original experimental or theoretical work with the main aim of obtaining new knowledge and understanding but without any specific application in sight. Applied research is also original investigation to gain new knowledge but is primarily targeted to specific practical goals. In the context of maritime medicine, researchers will mainly undertake applied research, which may be based on the outcomes of basic or applied research from other settings, e.g. knowledge of the effects on man of, e.g. shift-work or whole body vibration studied in a land-based industrial environment. Development work is systematic work, drawing on knowledge gained from research and/or practical experience in order to produce new or substantially improved materials, products, processes, systems or services. All these aspects of research are needed and requested from the maritime populations and industries, and they should all be appreciated.
Researchers and the maritime community
Research may be conducted by persons with a particular interest in the subject studied, and who possess a high degree of enthusiasm about the results and consequences of their research. However, the recognition or non-acceptance of research results should be independent of the personal or social characteristics of the researcher such as e.g. ethnicity, nationality, professional training or political stand. What is crucial is the quality and originality of the research rather than the researcher’s individuality. Whether in clinical work or in research the medical community should always aim to benefit the patient or the person in risk. Of particular importance in occupational and maritime medicine is the additional challenge of promoting sustainable solutions with technical and economical implications that require the support and acceptance by ship-owners, seafarers and maritime authorities.
For this reason, research in the context of community interventions such as in occupational and – more specifically – maritime health and safety should always be balanced. This may sound easy but practical constraints flourish. In developed countries, the technical and economical circumstances favour practical options for creating healthy and safe maritime workplaces. In addition, there may be a high degree of mutual understanding and respect in between the individual seafarers and their employers. In spite of the widespread recognition that happy employees constitute an asset for any business, these positive circumstances may be absent in less favoured and poorer countries in which the maritime agenda may be characterized by commercial exploitation and little empathy towards personal risk. Fortunately, even in developing countries, however, the mutual interests of the employer and employee may often not differ too much or even be the same. The skipper in a fishing boat shares similar risks as his crew, and the ship-owner may realize the importance of a healthy and safe crew for the shipping company’s economy. Therefore, one can see small communities, e.g. in fishing, where owners and crew feel like a family and aim for solutions that benefit all. In general, however, it should be recognized that even in developed communities, there may be practical or economic barriers with regard to what one can achieve.
The nature of research
Common to all research is an organized or systematic scepticism. The questions being investigated should be answered through the application of stringent methods and consistently logical and critical thinking with nothing taken for given in advance. This may easily cause conflicts. When work-related health and safety aspects are studied, one constant source of conflict is the potential for different interests that may exist between employers and employees, e.g. when the former has to pay for the health and safety of the latter. Such different perspectives may prevent the launch of a study, but may also bias conclusions if the researchers are paid by or influenced by specific interests. Even with no bias of this kind, the researcher may still be regarded as prejudiced with the consequence that the research results are less likely to make a difference in real life.
Research methodologies have undergone a significant evolution over years. Deduction from personal experience as a source of generalized cognition was previously the only way of generating knowledge. Together with narratives, this approach may still significantly determine decisions. Today, the increasing focus on evidence based medicine, e.g. in the clinical setting, and the advent of the randomized clinical trial has opened new possibilities for decision-making. We have, however, learned from meta-analyses that a single scientific study may not necessarily provide the only and correct solution, and also that quantitative methods cannot give all the answers and solutions that we need. Qualitative research methods are equally important, and because many in the medical profession rarely undertake these approaches to achieving knowledge, we are highly dependent on interdisciplinary collaboration. Characteristics of each of these main types of research are described below.
Research ideas and planning of research with special reference to maritime medicine
The idea leading to new research may arise in various ways but would in any case demand a prior acquaintance with the subject. In maritime medicine as well as in occupational medicine, typical examples of upcoming ideas leading to research include complaints or requests from those in risk in for instance a wish to control specific symptoms or disorders, to address known risk factors, or to assess issues such as the safety culture on board or the efficacy of the available safety equipment or emergency back-up systems.
The approach of the researcher requires familiarity with the subject in question and may be influenced by professional experience and challenges that have come from prior practical tasks or previous research. Motivation to perform a study may also arise from discussions with committed fellow researchers. Other important matters that may influence the decision to launch a particular study would be the current resources such as the availability and experience of manpower, and the significance of the issue raised in terms of the number of persons in risk and the seriousness of adverse health effects should the risk occur. One frequently decisive factor is the opportunities for financing a project. Potential limitations here may prevent important issues to be studied while less significant problems may be subjected to intensive research if abundant opportunities for financing are available. These constraints explain while the vast majority of research in maritime medicine deals with the maritime populations in the developed countries and minimal research focus on the health, safety and wellbeing of the major proportion of seafarers and fishermen from developing countries.
Frequently, ideas are created at the same time in multiple centres. They may be influenced by trends occurring simultaneously among professionals following identical or related thinking. A critical approach is a key issue because the absence of a critical approach infers a risk of professional stagnation. If all researchers tend to look in the same (and possibly wrong) direction, there is little chance that the research will eventually improve the health and safety of the maritime population.
An important part of the preparation for a research project is to achieve familiarity with the relevant scientific literature in the field and to discuss and scrutinize one’s ideas with colleagues. In case of occupational medicine and maritime medicine, however, it may be just as crucial to discuss the issue with maritime professionals such as the seafarers. They tend to have a practical view of the problem and may have valuable ideas with regard to the ways and possibilities for solving it.
Any intervention that is likely to provide benefit for the seafarers’ health, safety or social life is prone to constitute a cost, which, depending of the character of the intervention may be of a considerable size. The balance between cost and benefit always needs to be within the scope of the researcher who wants to make a difference. In the case of an excess cost for an intervention compared to its benefit, successful implementation is less likely. In addition, it may reduce the maritime trade’s future confidence in improved performance achieved through research.
When is an idea a good one? The point is to develop and formulate a problem, e.g. by hypothesizing a cause-effect relation. This hypothesis should be based on existing and new observations and arguments. For a research idea to be a good one, it should be possible to perform the required measurements or assessments. Quantitative research should entitle unambiguous answers to the questions raised, lead to key relationships and illuminate many aspects of the subject. However, the first of these ambitions does not always apply with qualitative research, which, however, may often better contribute to the understanding of relationships.
It is not surprising but unfortunate that many research projects deal with issues that can be solved instead of issues that need to or should be solved. Frequently, however, the outcome of such research may form the basis for future research that can lead to better understanding and even constitute a basis for decisions.
The quantitative researcher should develop a working hypothesis before the investigations are performed. The results of the study will then show if the hypothesis was false or confirmed. This approach is less feasible in qualitative research in which, however, the investigator should be open to any relevant issues coming up during fieldwork that do not accord with their working hypothesis.
The research should have the potential of ultimately leading to improved health and safety of seafarers and should therefore be conducted with methods that are suitable for the purpose. Therefore, it is crucial for the researcher to not apply working methods that may be easy or familiar to him instead of using methods that are likely to illustrate the studied problem. The problem one wishes to analyze should determine the choice of methods (such as study design and analysis, the data selected for the study, and the ways of collecting the data), not the other way round. The methods should be simple and rapid enough to permit a sufficient number of observations for reaching a significant conclusion. However, sometimes the problem requires in depth studies, which inevitably means that for practical reasons only a limited number of persons can be studied. In any case, the researcher should aim for a balance between the number of observations and study persons, so that a valid estimate of the variables being investigated can be achieved.
The study protocol should be sufficiently detailed to enable somebody else to reproduce the study. It should include a description of the background for and the challenges leading to the project, the aims of the project, the study group and the applied methods, the data that are to be collected and their management, and the application and potential impact of the study.
Who can do research?
Anybody involved in maritime health and safety at an academic level can do research. But being a good researcher involves more than brilliant ideas and implementing them. Most researchers spend the majority of their time reading papers, discussing ideas with colleagues, writing and revising papers, and intermittently staring blankly into space and thinking.
It is important, in particular for younger or inexperienced researchers, to become part of a larger research community. Being left to oneself is frustrating and makes it harder to keep track of the direction of the investigation and the exit point in the research, staying motivated, and spending one’s time wisely.
It is useful to keep a journal of the research activities and ideas and to write down speculations, interesting problems, possible solutions, random ideas, references to look up, notes on papers one has read, outlines of papers to write, and interesting quotes. Reading back through it periodically may show that the initially random thoughts start to come together and form a pattern.
One will have to read a lot of technical papers to become familiar with any field, and to stay up to date. Often over half of one’s time is spent reading, especially at the beginning. This is normal. However, it is impossible to read everything that might be relevant and selective reading is necessary. It is wise to ask an experienced colleague about the most useful journals in the field, and to ask for a list of seminal or "classic" papers that are definitely important to read.
Keep the read papers filed away so you can find them again later, and set up a bibliography with fields for keywords, the location of the paper and a short summary of particularly interesting papers. This bibliography will be useful for later reference.