Basic Research and Applied Research
As a search for the unknown whose outcomes are virtually unlimited, research defies exact definition. Intellectually, it is apparent that the performance of research takes place across a continuum of thought and action, from the abstract reasoning of a single individual to a multi-billion-dollar program of technological complexity, such as a mission to Mars.
However, to satisfy administrative or intellectual needs, it has often been convenient to separate “basic” research from “applied” research. In that spirit, basic research is often thought of as an unfettered exploration of nature whose only required output is new knowledge and whose outcomes are unknowable in advance. Applied research might be described as an activity whose outputs are also new knowledge, but knowledge whose nature and use are explicitly needed to achieve a specific useful outcome. 3
Any research process is complex and has many feedback loops. A question raised during “applied” research might kindle a “basic” question that leads to new fundamental understanding. The knowledge “output” of basic research might—often after years or even decades—find utility as a practical “outcome.” For example, some of Louis Pasteur's most fundamental understandings about microbiology grew out of practical attempts to control spoilage in beer and wine. In contrast, a knowledge-seeking study in basic research can lead to a discovery of great practical value. The atomic phenomenon of stimulated emission identified by Einstein in 1917 led eventually to the laser light that carries our e-mail today along fiberoptic lines. 4
In managing and funding research, it is important to understand the open-ended possibilities of any research activity, no matter how it is categorized, and to encourage the freedom of inquiry that leads beyond what is already known. Any imagined distinctions between “basic” and “applied” research are less important than this unimpeded freedom to follow one's intuition and evidence in the service of improved understanding. In practice, research managers must have the insight to balance the need for predictable results with the desire for unexpected breakthroughs.
3 For example, a research effort to make an amplifier by using semiconductors did not succeed. It was suggested that something might be happening on the surface of the semiconductor that interfered with the desired result. A basic study of the semiconductor surface began, which led to the discovery of the transistor effect.
4 The National Academies publish Beyond Discovery: The Path from Research to Human Benefit, a series of articles that describe applications of basic research that could not have been anticipated when the original research was conducted. The series, published four to six times per year, is available on the National Academies Web site, www.nationalacademies.org/beyonddiscovery.