The distinction between basic and applied scientific endeavour is growing increasingly blurred, in part because the same community of researchers is often involved with both pursuits.Did 17th-century Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist Galileo practise basic or applied science? Such modern terms did not exist in his time, but today they have come to characterise – and differentiate – much of the research that is taking place.
When Galileo adapted a new Dutch discovery and created a 10-power telescope in 1609, he was engaging in what most people today would call “applied” science. But in 1610, when he spotted Jupiter’s moons with his 30-power telescope and in the process found irrefutable evidence supporting the Copernican idea of the sun at the centre of the solar system, he was involved in what would be known today as “basic” research. Subsequently, when he measured the movements of Jupiter’s moons and came up with a way to use these measurements as a navigation tool, he once again entered the realm of applied science.
David Nordfors, advisor and project manager for Vinnova, the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems, tells this story as an example of how basic and applied research, while distinct in many ways, also tend to merge in the process of scientific discovery.
“Basic research is in fact directly useful sometimes, and there are applied scientists who follow a line of work just because it is fun, or they encounter an interesting problem,” says Nordfors. “But essentially, the goal of applied science is to create a situation that will eventually lead to a product or service being developed.”
According to the National Academies of the United States, basic research involves theoretical or experimental investigation to advance scientific knowledge, without immediate practical application as a direct objective. For example, basic research by physicists on atomic structure more than 60 years ago led to today’s Global Positioning System, known as GPS. Scientists then could not know that decades later their work would help to create a network of satellites that could send signals to a receiver and instantly pinpoint someone’s location on the planet to within 30 metre.
Applied research uses knowledge gained through theoretical or experimental investigation to make things or create situations that will serve a practical purpose. Programmes in applied research usually include a series of milestones to be reached by particular times and a description of the intended outcomes, as well as their significance to society. In the fields of microelectronics, information and communication technology, pharmaceuticals and transportation, for example, applied research has been indispensable in leading to the creation of new products and processes.
Basic and applied research also differ from product development, defined as an activity that systematically and methodically uses research results and scientific knowledge to achieve new products. However, while some product development, such as the development of CD players and microwave ovens, builds on scientific research, other types of product development are aimed at simply making a product, such as a toy or a pair of shoes.
Invention is related to product development in that it seeks to create a solution or product rather than to establish a truth or show an effect, which is the prime purpose of both basic and applied research. Invention can also be carried out by anyone, regardless of education or training, which is not true for those working in basic and applied research.
Vinnova’s Nordfors has given these distinctions some thought. As he describes it, applied research aspires to be a part of what he calls the “innovation system,” the interaction between those who are needed for turning an idea into a product on the market. Basic research does not have this predefined goal.
The scientific community comprises researchers in both basic and applied research. Their research projects overlap and feed one another. A case in point, says Nordfors, is the research being conducted internationally to characterise all human genetic material by determining the complete sequence of the DNA in the human genome. The ultimate goal is to study and map all the human genes (more than 30,000), and render them accessible for further biological study. That knowledge will, in turn, be used within applied research in the area of medicine and pharmaceuticals. In this case it is difficult to make a clear distinction between basic and applied research just by looking at the results. Whether researchers call their work “basic” or “applied” is more a reflection of how they picture themselves, and how much they aspire to interact with the innovation system.
Like Galileo, Dan Shechtman, a professor of materials engineering at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, defies easy categorisation. In 1984, Shechtman’s discovery of quasi-crystals led to a change in the basic definition of crystals. What began as basic research is today largely applied, he says, as further studies into quasi-crystals have shown them to be abundant in nature, hard, friction-free or low in friction, and stick-free, like PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), so that they can be used for coating aluminium frying pans, for example.
“The difference between basic and applied science is narrowing very rapidly,” Shechtman says. “People who are working in applied research need to know the basics. It is often the same community of scientists working together.
“The distance between a basic understanding of science and the creation of something on the marketplace is shortening all the time,” he continues, “primarily because of a big demand by the market for new and better products or better tools to perform different functions. Researchers are getting closer to industries, as they discover the power of partnerships with private industry, and industry discovers the expertise that exists in the scientific community.”
In fact, a great deal of applied research today is funded by the private sector and takes place at many large companies. Smaller companies may find applied research unaffordable, but organisations such as the Swedish government- funded Vinnova try to address this problem by offering financial support. Applied research as well as basic research is also funded by governments and universities throughout the world.
Applied research in the biomedical or biotechnology industry can be a researcher setting out to develop a means of treating or preventing a particular disease. An example of his type of research can be extensive laboratory studies that eventually lead to tests performed on humans in carefully controlled clinical trials.
In contrast, medical researchers doing basic research are looking for answers to more general questions. They are seeking to add to the store of knowledge about how living things work.
Both basic and applied research is necessary for making significant advances in human development. The essential difference is that applied research, through a systematic and methodical search for new knowledge and ideas, has a direct application in mind. In the practical world of business, this has significant appeal.
“In order to have applied research, there has to be a need and a potential for doing something with the knowledge,” says Vinnova’s Nordfors. “There must be the potential for spreading the knowledge as an application. This is the essence of innovation.”
a business journalist based in Stockholm