Joseph Lewis
March 2023

The scientific method of the future

person with goggles holding a plant

This article, published as part of the IES’s Future of ES23 horizon scanning & foresight project, examines the past and potential future of the scientific process, as well as ways to integrate systems thinking, interdisciplinary approaches, and public engagement through scientific literacy.

In 1686, three centuries before the internet, or the discovery of dark energy, or footsteps on the moon, a manuscript in the name of Isaac Newton was presented to the Royal Society, which by that time was still, as an institution, less than three decades old. 

With that manuscript – the first chapter of what would come to be known as Principia – not only did Newton establish the foundations of classical mechanics, he conjured the notion of principles of reason and logic which still form the basis of our understanding of scientific inquiry. 

Published subsequently in the final chapter of Principia, those notions became rules of reason, opened with the claim of scientific philosophy that “we are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” And by the theoretical descendants of those rules, the modern scientific method was born.

Since then, the scientific method has guided the spirit of inquiry, growing with the endeavour of science. As we look to the future of environmental science, we must also consider how the evolving scientific method will shape that future.

Reflecting again on Newton’s rules in Principia, it is perhaps the fourth that best captures the heart of the modern scientific method:

In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypothesis that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.

What next?

For many environmental professionals, the scientific method is not ubiquitous in their day-to-day work, but it represents a key question of philosophy that underpins every aspect of environmental science. In the modern day, the idea of what it means for science to be rigorous and empirical is borne out not through discussion papers at the Royal Society, but through the work of environmental scientists and the best practice they apply to their work.

The future of the scientific method has all the potential to elevate that practice and reinvigorate the public’s passion for scientific endeavour. Ultimately, it falls to the work of environmental scientists to embody the kind of science that brings that passion to life.

This article is part of our Future of ES23 horizon scanning & foresight project on the future of the environmental sciences. Find out more about the project and how you can get involved

If you want to support the work of the IES to shape the future of the environmental sciences, you can join as an affiliate, or if you’re a professional in the environmental sector working with science, consider becoming a member of the IES.