What does it mean to make scientific discoveries?

Scientists have been unlocking the secrets of the universe and improving our quality of life for millennia.

Science has brought us everything from discoveries like the earth is round and the law of gravity, to developments in vaccines for infectious diseases, greater understanding of the human mind, and identifying the structure of DNA. Incredible, right?

Scientists are often on the cutting edge of advancement, says scientist Professor Leigh Ackland from Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences. ‘Scientific discoveries are an ongoing process,’ she says. ‘Every time we do an experiment, we find something new.’

Some game-changing scientific discoveries take decades and huge teams of researchers, while other breakthroughs happen by accident. So, what does it take to make scientific discoveries and become the next Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking or Jane Goodall? If you’re curious about how to become a scientist, the process of scientific discovery is an important one to wrap your head around.

Exploring hypotheses

Scientific inquiry is a process of exploration rather than attempting to identify a linear path from hypothesis to conclusion. Professor Ackland says small scientific discoveries happen every day in the lab – where, in case you’re wondering, scientists wear lab gowns rather than lab coats – but often it’s only after teams of scientists have done a lot of similar experiments over many years that they are able to fully understand what’s going on. ‘Altogether that’s probably what most people would consider a scientific discovery,’ she says.

Investigating two seemingly unrelated concepts is often the key that unlocks major scientific discoveries. ‘When someone has a very creative idea about something, where they might link two independent findings together and follow this up with testing to prove their idea, this can lead to completely novel ways of looking at things,’ says Professor Ackland.

‘It’s about being very observant with your experiments and thinking of other explanations for your results. Science is actually a really creative process – it’s about using your intuition to discover how things work.’

She cites an example of two identical cells growing in her lab that behaved differently. ‘When we looked into it, what we found is the conditions that I’d been growing one group of cells under meant that the cells had changed into another cell type,’ she says. ‘When I followed this up, I discovered that it was one of the first examples of how human cancer cells could be “switched on” or “switched off”.

‘In other words, we discovered you can push a cell to become more cancerous or less cancerous – that hadn’t been demonstrated before. It was only by paying attention to those small details of why the cell wasn’t behaving like we thought it might lead to this new insight.’

‘It’s about being very observant with your experiments and thinking of other explanations for your results. Science is actually a really creative process – it’s about using your intuition to discover how things work.’

Professor Leigh Ackland,

School of Life and Environmental Science, Deakin University

Cementing scientific discoveries

What’s called ‘peer review’ is the gold standard for evaluating scientific discoveries. Before being published in a respected journal, a scientific paper is sent to experts in the field who assess and critique it.

‘Peer review is very important for the verification of scientific advances,’ says Professor Ackland. ‘Your peer scientists evaluate it and establish whether they think it’s a good study, whether there’s anything that you’ve left unturned, whether it fits in with what other people have done and how novel it is.’

This opens the door for the next vital step in the validation of scientific discoveries: replication. ‘A team of researchers will often work together – they can be the main discoverers, then other scientists can replicate these experiments, because all the methods are freely available,’ says Professor Ackland. ‘In this way, it can be proven that it’s right.

‘The collaborative approach to scientific work where scientists are keen to share their results and ideas with other scientists works to promote new discoveries.’

Stumbling on accidental breakthroughs

That said, not all scientific discoveries follow the rule book. In fact, some huge breakthroughs happen altogether by accident.

One of the most famous is the discovery of penicillin. When Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming came back from holiday in 1928, he discovered a type of green mould had contaminated Petri dishes in his lab – and killed some of the bacteria he’d been growing.

‘The culture wasn’t meant to be contaminated, but it was contaminated by a fungus that stopped it from growing,’ says Professor Ackland. ‘That’s how they discovered antibiotics.’

Other breakthroughs are too out-there to be accepted by the scientific community right away. A well-known example is American scientist Barbara McClintock’s 1940s discovery – long before female researchers became the norm – that instead of stable entities arranged in an ordinary linear pattern, genes could be mobile and hop around the chromosome.

This dramatic shift in our understanding of the genome – dubbed ‘jumping genes’ – was so unorthodox that peer review panels rejected it. ‘Everyone thought it was an absolute load of rubbish, but decades later we know now that this is what happens,’ says Professor Ackland. ‘A lot of very novel discoveries don’t get accepted right away because people can’t cope with something so novel.’