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James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative
2007 Program Meeting
Methodology Matters
June 4-6, 2007
Babson Executive Conference Center
Babson Park, MA



Methodology Matters

It is easy to overlook how the way we obtain, analyze, and present our research effects the way we interpret our findings and the way we pursue future research. Experimental approaches, the models used, the measurement tools, the use of statistics, and styles of summarizing and presenting data are both deliberately selected, inherited from our mentors, and/or passed down as traditions within a field. At this year’s annual meeting, we are asking participants to take an explicit look at methodologies and to consider how the choice of methods shapes our knowledge. The three topics selected for the symposia follow from the overall theme.

Symposium 1: moderator – Jean Hebert
Depicting Data: Is what you see (necessarily) what you get (or have)?
The use of tables, charts, graphs, schematics, cartoons, and other depictions of data are routinely used to share information – but they are also used to make a point, emphasize a finding, and bias our interpretations. In this session the presentations and discussions will focus on how data depiction can be problematic, particularly for interdisciplinary research where implicit rules and conventions are not always shared by collaborators trained in different disciplines.

Symposium 2: moderator – Mercedes Pascual
Reality vs. Research: Strengths and limitations of model systems
There is an explicit awareness that models are used as an abstraction of reality. Less explicitly described, particularly by experimentalists, are the expectations of a selected model. The model in question could be an animal model serving as a proxy for a human disease, or a theoretical model used to probe mechanisms or test predictions. What matters is how well the model is suited to its purpose. One implied purpose, often unfulfilled purpose, is revealing causal relationships among the variables of interest.

Symposium 3: moderator – David Danks
Worth a thousand words? The ups and downs of using photos, film, and the outputs from imaging tools as primary data.
Although this Symposium shares some overlapping concerns with Symposium 1, attributable to the persuasive power of visual images, a unique set of concerns emerge when images are not only a device for depicting data but are the data. In this session, we will discuss how the use of photos, video, and an increasingly wide range of real-time imaging tools, from micro-imaging of single cells to satellite imaging of landscape changes, can alter our interpretation of what we know, based on what we see.

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