Applied and Basic Research

The bridge between science and society is the teamwork of basic and applied research. Yet sometimes it seems that the distance across that bridge is too great for clear perception.

Conflict: Applied vs. Basic Research

That some non-scientists hold distorted views of science and technology is not surprising. Even scientists sometimes succumb to stereotypes concerning science, particularly regarding applied vs. basic research.

The choice between applied and basic research is a watershed career decision. Perhaps it is to be expected that the individual will reinforce that choice, by emphasizing the perceived disadvantages of the rejected option.

My own perspective of the dichotomy between basic and applied research is from the physical sciences. The boundary is fuzzier and perhaps the prejudices are fewer in the social sciences, because study of behavior is implicitly alert to human applications. I have worked primarily in basic research, and I have often heard the academics’ stereotypes about industry scientists (‘materialistic’, ‘less intelligent’, ‘less creative’). This prejudice is particularly obvious in the academic’s use of the term ‘pure research’ to describe basic research, as if applied research is somehow impure. Yet I also worked for several years in industry, where I saw corresponding stereotypes by industry researchers toward academics (‘ivory tower’, ‘dilettantes and dabblers’, ‘groundless pomposity’). Both sets of stereotypes had more to do with personal ego massage than with real differences. Some generalizations are possible, if we are mindful of frequent exceptions.

The methods of basic research and applied research are the same.

Basic research seeks knowledge of any kind. Applied research is alert to and partially directed by potential practical applications. This distinction is not absolute, however. Branches of basic research with obvious implications for society are more fundable than other basic research. An applied researcher may devote prolonged effort to basic issues if they have been inadequately developed by academics. Indeed, some industrial analysts attribute Japanese technological success partly to the willingness of Japanese industry to establish a firm theoretical foundation. Thus applied research does not merely follow up on basic research; the converse can be true.

Some basic researchers claim that they are free to explore the implications of unexpected results, whereas applied researchers are compelled to focus on a known objective. Yet both pursue applications of their discoveries, whether industrial or scientific, and both allow potentially fruitful surprises to refocus their research direction.

Successful industrial competition means not only getting ahead in some areas, but also keeping up in others. Often, it is more efficient for a company to introduce and apply published work by others than to initiate experiments. Applied researchers may experience conflict between their scientific value of open communication and the business need for confidentiality. Applied researchers tend to be more alert than basic researchers to potential applications for their research of discoveries in a different field. Applied research is generally more mindful of economic factors, more cognizant that an approach may be theoretically viable yet financially or otherwise impractical.

Usually the academic researcher can maintain the illusion of having no boss, whereas the chain of command in industry is obvious. It may be easier to start a pilot project in industry. Go/no-go decisions are more frequent too; continuation of the project must be defended at every step.

Some applied researchers [e.g., Killeffer, 1969] see academic research as a ‘stroll through the park,’ with no pressure to produce or to work efficiently. Job security in either type of research affects productivity pressure; probably the most pressured are researchers on ‘soft money’ — dependent on funding their own proposals. Self-motivation drives the most productive researchers in both applied and basic research; burn-outs are present in both.

Applied researchers have the satisfaction of knowing that their research has a concrete benefit for humanity. Basic researchers know that their research may have highly leveraged downstream applications, and that knowledge is an intrinsically worthwhile aspect of culture. What is the value of culture?

“To assess basic research by its application value would be awful. It would be like assessing the value of the works of Mozart by the sum they bring in each year to the Salzburg Festival.” [Lorenz, 1962]

Every scientist, basic or applied, has an implicit contract with society. Most scientists are paid by either industry or (perhaps indirectly) by state or federal government in the expectation that we will provide rewarding results. Technology is one such result; another is teaching that is enhanced by active participation in science. Basic researchers are in a unique position to recognize ways that their research might be of practical value. For a basic researcher to take salary and support services from the public, while neglecting possible usefulness of that research to society, is fraudulent.

The synergy between academic research and the local economy has not been quantified, but clues can be found in a detailed survey of the economic relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley technology. Most notable was the direct personnel influence: one third of the 3000 small companies in Silicon Valley were created by people who were or had been associated with Stanford. Direct technology transfer, though important, was much more modest: only 5% of the technology employed by these companies came directly from Stanford research [Lubkin et al., 1995].

Changing Goals for Applied and Basic Research

Attitudes toward applied and basic research are not just a concern for individuals; they also affect national policy. When resources are tight, for example, how can a nation set priorities for funding of basic and applied science? How can funding agencies choose among such diverse research areas as subatomic particles and the human genome? One approach is to define the goals of science, from a national perspective [Gomory, 1993]. Setting goals is a powerful basis for decision-making. Unfortunately, the choice of goals for basic and applied research is hotly debated.

The goal of basic research is reliable knowledge of nature, and the goal of applied science is useful knowledge of nature. These objectives are, perhaps, too sweeping to guide science funding. Until recently, U.S. research funding has been guided by the rationale laid out by Vannevar Bush [1945] half a century ago: both basic and applied research inevitably serve the mission of strengthening national security, mainly by promoting national defense but also by increasing self-sufficiency and standard of living. Bush’s vision catalyzed the subsequent growth of U.S. research funding and the breadth of supported disciplines. Priorities have gradually shifted toward greater emphasis on health and medicine, but the framework has remained intact until the last decade.

Some recent attempts to redefine U.S. scientific goals [Gomory, 1993; COSEPUP, 1993] appear to me to be based on the following flawed assumption: a nation or company does not need to make the discoveries; it just needs to be poised to use the discoveries of others. Gomory [1993] and numerous government officials extend this idea even farther, arguing that the purpose of science is industrial competitiveness. If so, perhaps basic science can be reduced to a support service for applied science. A minority [e.g., Jarrard, 1994; Cohen and Noll, 1994] respond that it would be a mistake to redefine the goal of science as industrial competitiveness.

Industrial competitiveness is essential to the economic welfare of the U.S., it is a high national priority, and it is a modern mantra. It is not — and has never been — the primary objective of scientific research. Making industrial competitiveness the purpose of applied research defines resulting industrial improvements in other countries as liabilities, not assets. Both individual companies and individual countries benefit from total technological growth, even without competitive advantage.

Pragmatism, not naïveté, suggests the following criterion for national science funding: return on investment, not relative advantage. How much money should a nation invest in basic and applied science? As with all potential investments, the first step is to evaluate return on investment:

“Science is an endless and sustainable resource with extraordinary dividends.” [Executive Office of the President, 1994]

“Basic research … has been an astounding success, whether measured in terms of understanding natural phenomena or improving material wealth and living standards of the world.” [Gomory, 1993]

Many economic studies have investigated the relationship of R&D to productivity, and “the main conclusions from their work are that more than half the historical growth in per capita income in the U.S. is attributable to advances in technology and that the total economic return on investment in R&D is several times as high as that for other forms of investment.” [Cohen and Noll, 1994]

With confidence in return on investment, one then invests as much as one can afford. More funded research will lead inevitably to more discoveries, increased productivity, and a higher standard of living.

Resolution: Bridging the Gap

The changing national priorities for basic and applied research affect research in many ways. The long-term cost-effectiveness of research remains unchallenged. The current focus of concern is, instead, on maximizing the efficacy and speed with which basic-research findings are transferred to the marketplace. One resulting trend is a reallocation of resources, with a higher proportion going to applied research. Today about half of the Ph.D.’s in science and engineering are employed outside the academic environment — a substantial increase since the 1970’s [National Science Foundation, 1994]. Another response is simply a more conscientious linkage between basic research and its potential applications to quality of life (e.g., in industry, professions, and health).

Research funding is changing. The proportion of projects funded entirely by a single grant from a federal agency is dropping. Increasingly, funding agencies are requiring cost sharing and collaboration with private industry. Joint projects between academic researchers and businesses are sprouting at an unprecedented rate, as both groups discover that carefully framed collaborative projects permit individuals to maintain their own objectives and benefit from broader expertise. For example, companies are recognizing the R&D leverage inherent in using faculty expertise and faculty-generated government cost sharing.

Universities are implementing mechanisms for assuring technology transfer and cooperative research among faculty, students, and local business. Some examples are student internships, graduate-student summer jobs in local industry, undergraduate research opportunity programs, university research parks, technology transfer offices, and seed money for research oriented toward technology development.

“To feed applied science by starving basic science is like economising on the foundations of a building so that it may be built higher.” [Porter, 1986]

How far will the pendulum of transformation in research funding swing? The rift between applied and basic research is decreasing, but is there still too much emphasis on basic research? At state and national levels, some are asking whether we really need and can afford the research universities.

Both research and graduate-level teaching make the same major demand on an individual’s time: to be up-to-the-minute in a specialized and rapidly growing field. Whereas textbooks are fine for the undergraduate level where well-established ‘facts’ are taught, graduate-level teaching and research must be at the cutting edge where new ideas are being proposed, evaluated, and rejected. Active researchers are the best guides in this frontier, where the graduate student must learn to travel.

Graduate study is an apprenticeship. Like undergraduate education, it includes some texts and lectures. Unlike undergraduate education and trade schools, most graduate and professional programs require an individually tailored interplay of supervised yet independent study, a learning-by-doing that develops both specialized knowledge and a combination of competencies and work attitudes. Effective graduate-level apprenticeship requires a mentor, research facilities, identification of feasible and decisive research topics, and usually research funding. The research component of a research university is designed to provide exactly these requirements.

These two aspects of graduate study, apprenticeship and evaluation of new ideas, make graduate study less amenable to distance learning and electronic teaching than is undergraduate study. The combination of personal attention and electronic technology is, in contrast, at the heart of graduate education in a research university.


Jarrard, R. D. (2001). Scientific methods. Online book, URL

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