Basic vs Applied Research

To prepare for semester exam, i wrote several essays on Innovation topics to help me revise. As the exam period already finished, rather than throw it away i might as well post it here. All of the essays can be looked up using ExamEssay tag. Hope it can be useful. 

Research by definition is a creative activity to produce knowledge. By characteristics, research can be divided into two categories : basic and applied.

Research type.png
Characteristics of both type of research

In short, basic research is curiosity driven activity to produce science while applied research is a problem solving activities to come up with new technology.

Classical view on science and technology relationship

In the old fashioned view, science came before technology. Basic research increase the stock of science in the society which in turns becomes the fuel of applied research activities. Technology is an application of science hence basic research need to be prioritized first.


Relationship model on the classical view

The prominent supporter of this view is inventor, engineer and former head of US Office of Scientific Research and Development  Vannevar Bush. After world war 2, Bush advocated the importance of funding basic research. In his report to the president titled Science The Endless Frontier, Bush argued that basic research increase the nation’s scientific capital, drive technological progress which in turns improve the nation’s competitiveness in world trade.

The entire Vannevar Bush report to the President can be read here

Contrarian view to describe the relationship

However the relationship apparently is not that simple. In his book Society and Technological Change, sociology professor Rudi Volti proposed several counter arguments which contradict the old view of this relationship :

  1. Technology can develop independently without previous scientific basis.  When looking at the ancient history such as Greeks and Romans, technological advancement in architecture, agriculture and metallurgy developed before the underlying scientific principles were understood.
  2. Technology can stimulate science. In occasion, technological advancements could lead to new scientific discovery. The process of applying new technology could also defy accepted scientific explanation which leads to development of new theories. In 1858, Henry Giffard invented steam injector engine which defied widely accepted caloric theory hence leads to the acceptance of the alternative kinetic heat theory.
  3. Technological practices and applications used in scientific discovery can spin out into new branch of science. During world war II,  US and other countries engaged in the development of Radar technology. In the process of this invention, Charles Townes developed a technology to measure molecular structure using light called Lasers. This technology then expand both into new scientific discovery and practical use of lasers from barcode scanners to CD players.

In the contemporary view, relationship between science and technology can is complex. Volti defined these relationship as dynamic and characterized by considerable back and forth movement.

Pasteur research quadrant

Another view on the basic and applied research is from Donald Stokes which he wrote in his book Pasteur’s Quadrant. Learning from how Louis Pasteur conducted his research, Stokes concluded that there are middle ground between pure basic and applied research.

Roger’s 2×2 research matrix

The research work exemplified by Pasteur didnt fit into both definition of basic and applied research. His work on germ theory was driven by curiosity to understand microbiology while also looking for ways to stop milk and beer going off.

Relationship Implication for Policy and Funding

Considering all of the factor above, there are no exact answers which one should be prioritized in terms of government policy and funding. Several popular reasoning which support prioritization of basic research.

  1. Researching “odd ball science “might lead to a revolutionary practical discovery. From the lasers, internet and graphene, many prominent revolutionary discovery could be attributed to scientist pursuing an unusual phenomena.
  2. Basic research inspire new generation of scientist. Taking account of how US-Soviet Union space race in the 1960’s popularized science in the society, prominent science spokesperson Neil DeGrasse Tyson argued that investing in Mars mission is at the very least inspirational even though the practical application of this investment is yet to be seen.

On the other hand, arguments supporting applied research are focused on the return factor.

  1. If basic research unintentionally resulted in practical discovery, the it will be more effective to intentionally seek practical usage. This is counter argument from the above. Why depends on the unintentional nature of discovery when it can be pursued from the start.
  2. Research is costly hence return on this investment is expected. This especially applies to government funded research as taxpayer’s spending need to be justified by prioritizing research which served on the nation’s and public interest.

In his article in Scientia Salon blog, philosophy professor and author Massimo Pigliucci argued that even though there are no definite proof that basic research brings immediate economic benefit, it still worth to spend money on it for the sake of enriching knowledge and culture just like investing in museum or art conservation. The percentage of applied research in the US is already much higher than the basic one hence it can be considered a cost which society can afford to pay.

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