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NIDA. (2011, April 26). How Scientists Approach Their Research. Retrieved from

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Sara Bellum
April 26 2011
Photo of the NIDA Addiction Science award

“We always start with a question…”

We love getting the comments you send us in response to important or controversial posts. As you know, Sara Bellum has the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s most renowned researchers to understand more about drug abuse and addiction. Since many of you have commented on blog posts questioning the science or wondering how NIDA scientists reach their conclusions, we invited NIDA’s Director, Dr. Nora Volkow, to talk about how scientists go about the process of discovery. Dr. Volkow explains:

In scientific research, we always start with a question. It could be something monumental—like setting out to map every neuron in the human brain to help determine its precise structure—or something that applies in only certain cases—like why do some people get addicted to drugs more easily than others?

Once we have a question in mind, we investigate existing research to see how others have looked at the question, or maybe even answered it. Sometimes, this helps a researcher refine the question or discover whether other conclusions could have been drawn from existing data.

Science is about testing and retesting our assumptions

Based on current research on differences in addiction between individuals, we might look through data to identify common features for drug-addicted persons: are they based on a family history of addiction? Are there environmental factors like the availability of certain drugs? What about mental health considerations?

From there, we would form a hypothesis. For example: “In certain individuals, heredity is a factor in drug addiction.”

Then we would devise a way to test that hypothesis in an experimental group vs. a control group. The only way we can verify results is to have someone else conduct the experiment independently and replicate the findings. Science is about testing and retesting our assumptions. Only then can we call it a science-based fact.

So, you can see that scientists are, by nature, curious about why and how things work. Maybe you’ve been curious enough to do a science experiment yourself?

Maybe you’re like teens Daniel Martin, Jada Dalley, and Sehar Salman, who all found themselves pursuing scientific mysteries: Daniel wondered if he could prove the urban myth that scavengers in the deserts of the Southwest will not touch human remains with even a trace of methamphetamines in their bodies. Jada and Sehar examined tsetse flies (a common experimental source for scientists) to discover something completely new: effects of third-hand smoke. They searched for answers using the scientific method Dr. Volkow describes above, and designed research projects that earned them a 2009 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Addiction Science Award.

Check out ( PDF [586 KB] ) what Daniel, Jada and Sehar found, and how they reached their conclusions.

Keep asking questions.