Tag Archives: Applied research

WHAT DOES SCIENCE MATTER TO ME, AN ORDINARY PERSON IN 2015?

 Science is everywhere! Everybody needs science! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Science is everywhere!  Everyone uses science!  Everybody needs science!  (http://dr-monsrs.net) 

The general public is estranged from science and is afraid of scientific research (see: “On the Public Disregard for Science and Research” ).  This sad state is due to several interrelated causes: (1) very defective education of people about what science is and what research does, (2) a general decrease in the educational status, such that most adults feel they cannot possibly understand anything having to do with science or research, (3) the issuance of science news on TV and the internet as gee-whiz stories that are strictly for amusement, (4) scientists are viewed as some weird creatures wearing white coats in labs with lots of strange machines and computers, and, (5) almost nobody has ever met and talked to a real living research scientist.

Basic research, applied science, and engineering: what does each do?

The research work resulting in some new commercial product or an amazing new medical development typically arose through the work of quite a few different scientists and engineers.  Basic research starts this process by investigating the whys and wherefores of something; this seeks new knowledge for its own sake, irrespective of practical uses.   Applied research takes some basic findings and seeks to develop their practical usage by improving their qualities and capabilities; this seeks to expand knowledge so that some potential practical use (i.e., a product or process) can be derived.  Engineering development then pushes the progression of development further by making it economically feasible to produce, and commercially effective to sell, something that is new or better; this seeks to enable a new or improved commercial product to be manufactured and marketed.  The 3 phases of this process can take place within the laboratory setting of a university or an industrial research and development (R&D) center.  The entire process often takes years or decades to be completed. 

Why does scientific research matter to everyone? 

Ordinary people should feel emotionally attached to the progress of science and research, for several reasons.  First, the public pays taxes for the research enterprise, and therefore everyone has some interest in the success of these studies.  The basic research by scientists requires time, money, and good luck to be successful; the money from commercial profits or tax collections pays for all the salaries, supplies, and other essential research expenses.  Second, the applied research and engineering R&D efforts are entirely devoted to satisfying the expectation of some future usage by the public.  This anticipation is based upon the self-interest of numerous  people in the public concerning practical matters in their daily life (e.g., better communication, better treatments for medical ailments, cheaper transportation, cleaner environment, less work and time needed to do something, more widespread good nutrition, etc.). 

All people visit commercial stores, food markets, gasoline stations, sites for laundry and cleaning, etc.  During all these transactions, they are using the results of research and development by scientists and engineers, whether they realize this fact or not.  Naturally, devices and tools for daily life need to be modified, thus giving rise to development of improved commercial offerings; the wishes of the public, as well as the financial hopes of marketers, serve to encourage progress in technology.  When people realize that scientific research impacts literally everything in their daily life, then they will begin to understand what scientists do and to be more enthusiastic about science and research.  Modern science not only builds spaceships and manipulates atoms, but it also helps people to live and work in a more satisfying and healthy manner. 

Can better education solve the estrangement of people from science? 

Education must be remodelled so that all adults can comprehend the organization of the branches of science, what researchers and engineers actually do in their daily work, and, how  science is a vital part of life that has importance for everyone.  The divisions and subdivisions of science should be taught early, and should be explained with everyday examples.  If the public saw scientists as being fellow people, instead of as some bizarre creatures from another planet, they would be much better able to learn about real science rather than pseudoscience.   The stories about how some key discoveries actually were made by “famous scientists” should be taught in middle school.  Selected laboratory exercises in science classes should be given in middle schools and colleges, but with much more background so that students will see these as concrete examples of how science and research lead to some important practical event(s); this cannot be accomplished by meaningless exercises to memorize as quickly as possible before all is forgotten forever.  To see, touch, and hear scientific research in the real world, all students should have the opportunity in high (middle) school to visit a university or commercial research lab, along with the chance to ask questions and meet some actual doctoral scientists, graduate students, and research technicians working there.  

Instituting these changes could remove many of the problems the general public now has in  understanding and appreciating scientific research.  However, I do recognize that this approach is made difficult or even impossible because most teachers of science working today in high schools have themselves been maleducated.  If these teachers first will learn to be more fully knowledgeable and will develop the needed good understanding of their subject, then they will be able to show their students how science is involved with daily life and how interesting it is.  Some recent programs on the internet are aiming to improve the regard of the public for science, but because they are using an entertainment medium to present a serious subject they will continue to achieve only very limited success. 

Concluding remarks

Scientific research is everywhere in our daily life!  All that we consider to be facts originated through the activities of scientists and other research scholars.  It is not only prersent when a doctor prescribes a new medicine to alleviate some disease, but also is there when we eat a piece of dried pineapple or ride in a modern bus.  People must be better educated so they can recognize the giant role science and research have in our daily lives, and see the activities of scientists and engineers as contributing much to progress in all aspects of our activities as individuals.  

The main message is that science is for everyone, everybody uses science, and everyone needs science!  Science is both fascinating and mysterious, but it should not be feared.  It is time that ordinary people more easily recognize the very large roles scientific research and engineering developments play in their daily life! 

 

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BASIC VERSUS APPLIED SCIENCE: ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES TO FUNDING BASIC RESEARCH BY GRANTS?

Both basic research and applied research need to be supported by grant awards!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Two high school teachers discuss basic and applied research at universities!!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Basic science uses experimental research to seek new truths and test hypotheses.  Applied science seeks to improve or invent devices, methods, or processes so they have better output (e.g., faster or slower, lighter, more efficient, less expensive, more durable, etc.).  Research in basic and applied science at universities both need to be supported by external research grants.  At present, the large federal granting agencies increasingly seem to favor making awards for projects with applied research; awards to acquire knowledge for its own sake in basic research studies now are not considered as worthwhile for funding as formerly. 

What good is pure basic research? 

The classical work of the great pioneers in science, ranging from Galileo to Linus Pauling, all was pure basic science.  Nevertheless, research studies in modern basic science typically are seen as ridiculous or worthless by ordinary adults (e.g., What happens if entire chloroplasts isolated from plant cells are inserted into living animal cells?).  This viewpoint is very short-sighted because it ignores the simple fact that all research progress is part of a continuum of investigations by many different scientists.  Almost all new devices or items of practical use follow this general pathway of development; the final output of applied research can occur several decades after the original discovery by basic research.  Thus, esoteric new knowledge from basic science studies often becomes useful and important when it generates later research in applied science and engineering.  

The basis for all later developments in applied science is the open research in basic science. The number one example of this is the transistor.  When transistors were first made by Bardeen and others, they were viewed as “lab curiosities” that had no potential for practical usage [1].  No-one foresaw their eventual revolutionary significance for the myriad electronic devices and computers in today’s  world.   

How is it decided what research actually is conducted? 

In an ideal world, professional scientists with a Ph.D. decide what to investigate and how to carry out the needed experiments.  In the present world, faculty scientists at universities investigate only what can be supported by external research grant awards.  This necessity  influences and restricts university scientists right from their first job since applicants for a new research grant always very carefully inspect published announcements stating which topics and areas are currently being targeted by the governmental funding agencies; these agencies thereby have a very large influence on which research studies can be pursued.  Governmental officials at agencies awarding research grants can silently direct research efforts into chosen directions, and ensure that certain research topics receive more attention by university research scientists.  An analogous direction of work occurs for most industrial researchers, since they must work only on those research questions having significance for their commercial employer. 

The governmental control of funding for research investigations in science is problematic since the funding agencies increasingly seem to favor funding of research projects in applied science.  This is due in part to the understandable desire to obtain progress within their area of special interest (e.g., energy, fuels, health, military, etc.), and to show the tax-paying public that their support for research studies produces useful new devices or new processes with practical benefits to many.  The funding agencies unfortunately do not understand that basic studies almost always are the precursors for later developments by applied scientists and engineers.  Thus, these funding agencies have an inherent conflict between providing funding for the basic or applied categories of research. Decreasing the awards for basic science later will cause decreases in the output of applied science.  

What are the consequences of favored funding for applied science? 

Any favoring of applied science over basic science for receiving external funding awards inevitably has negative consequences on the progress of science.  First, it decreases the amount of research funds available to support pure basic research.  Second, it conflicts with the well-known fact that almost all important advances and engineering developments originate from some earlier finding(s) by pure basic researchers; decreased funding for basic research later will cause fewer results with applied research.  Third, all the research subjects not selected for targeted funding in applied science thereby are disfavored, and these consequently become less studied.  Fourth, the origin for most new ideas, new concepts, breakthrough developments, and new directions in science is the individual research scientist (see earlier discussions on “Individual Work versus Group Efforts in Scientific Research” and “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science” ).  Applied research tends to decrease the freedom to be creative; that also encourages formation of research groups and decreases the number of grant-holding scientists functioning as individual research workers. 

Are there alternatives in funding or support mechanisms for basic science?

Very small short-term research studies often can be supported by either personal funds or crowdfunding (see earlier discussion in: “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part III.  Unconventional Approaches to Find or Create Employment Opportunities” ).  Some granting agencies have programs offering small amounts of financial support for one year of work; these special opportunities are particularly valuable for scientists seeking to conduct pilot studies.  Where larger research expenses are needed, those mechanisms for support of small research are insufficient, and it is necessary to obtain a standard research grant from the external support agencies.  For subsequent investigations, most grant-holding scientists at universities choose to apply for renewal of their current award; once on the train, it seems easier to stay on board instead of trying to jump off to transfer onto a different train! 

It is not always recognized that a few organizations offer substantial cash prizes for certain targeted competitions (e.g., design a safe human-powered aircraft, develop an efficient system for producing bulk proteins from single-celled algae at special indoor or outdoor farms, construct a practical and inexpensive all-electric gasoline-free automobile, etc.).  Such projects are strongly involved with applied research, although they do involve whatever materials and directions the scientist-inventor wishes to utilize.  These special competitive prizes are retrospective awards given after the research studies and engineering developments are finished; that is totally the opposite of standard governmental research grants which give prospective awards for planned research work before it has been conducted. 

Retrospective research grant awards also are found in ongoing support programs of some other countries, but are not usual in the USA.  Those countries support their research scientists at universities and institutes by routinely awarding them general operating funds (e.g., $30,000/year); these funds provide support for such needed expenses as the work of graduate students, purchase of research supplies, unanticipated research costs (e.g., repair of a broken lab instrument), travel to a science meeting or to the lab of a collaborator, etc.  This supportive practice is a lifesaver whenever an active scientist’s research grant is not renewed. 

Support for basic research inside the current federal research grant system

The diminishing support for basic research necessitates looking for alternative funding sources.  It is not always recognized that normal federal research grants do allow some awarded funds to be utilized for new basic science investigations, so long as these have some relationship to the main subject of interest and do not require very large amounts of money.  This usage of research grant funds usually is considered as a justified expense when the Principal Investigator approves these expenditures.  Such side-projects often are labelled as being pilot studies, since they can produce enough important data to later be included in an application for a new separate research grant.  

Concluding remarks

Support by the research grant system for basic research studies now is decreasing while  support for applied research studies increases.  Knowledge for its own sake always will be important, and is the basis for subsequent developments in applied science and engineering.  Both the basic and applied types of research studies are valuable for the science enterprise and society.  The current disfavoring of basic research studies should be stopped, because that hurts the future promise of research studies in both basic and applied science; at present, basic science needs to be encouraged more.    University scientists must develop and use additional or unconventional means to enable them to conduct the needed basic science investigations. 

[1]  Mullis, K. B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:      http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf .

 

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IS MODERN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH WORTH ITS VERY LARGE COST?

 Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Recently, I explained why scientific research costs so very much (see article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is Science so Very Expensive?”)  With that understanding we now can wonder whether spending this very large total amount of money to support research studies is worthwhile (i.e., do the results justify the costs)?  This is a very natural question for all taxpayers who are forced to support research studies; but, this question is not so easy to answer because there are no objective measures upon which to base the evaluations.  The public views scientific research almost totally only on the basis of practical considerations (e.g., will this study cure a disease, will that research produce a much cheaper product, will these investigations help agricultural productivity, etc.).  To be fair both to taxpayers and the scientists conducting grant-supported research, we will first look at how to evaluate individual research projects, and then step back to consider the value received from all the total research activity. 

Are Individual Research Projects Worth their Costs? 

            Basic research seeks new knowledge for its own sake.  Most people judge the importance of basic research studies as being a total waste of money (e.g., “What difference does it make to me or to society if we know more facts about the nest-building behavior of another tropical fruit-eating bird?”).  This type of judgment by non-scientists is based on ignorance; moreover, they do not recognize that many esoteric findings from basic research much later turn out to have a very wide importance and significant practical uses.These thoughts lead me to believe that it is best to look at the critical opinions of experts rather than to use our everyday opinions based on emotions and ignorance.   Only experts have the full background and technical experience needed to form valid judgments about the worthiness of research projects in basic science.  My conclusion here is that the costs and benefits of basic science research can only be validly evaluated by experts. 

            For applied research, experimental and engineering studies are used to design a new offering or improve an existing commercial product.  Applied research and development efforts all are funded by a commercial business only up to the point that the total expenses must be less than the expected profits coming from future sales of the new or improved product.  Judgments by non-scientists about the worthiness of applied research are based only on personal preferences, and therefore commonly differ from one person to another. Again, opinions from experts are better.

How are Official Judgments Made about Worthiness in Proposed Research Studies? 

            Given that it is difficult for non-scientists to objectively evaluate the worthiness of most basic research studies in modern science, we must look briefly at how the official decisions about funding are made by granting agencies.  They are supposed to carefully consider whether the money requested is appropriate to accomplish the stated aims in each project, and how the results will have value for science and society. Both quality and quantity are evaluated for the different aspects of all reviews (e.g., design of experiments, significance of answering the research questions, amount of time and money required, availability of needed laboratory facilities, training of the principal investigator, etc.).  With applications for renewal of research support, reviewers then must look both forward (i.e., what will be done?) and backward (i.e., what has been accomplished during the previous period of support?).  The expert reviewers also make both official and unofficial examinations about whether the selected research subject needs further study, and if significance of the expected results will justify the budget being requested.   

            The evaluation mechanism used by granting agencies avoids the ignorance problem by using experts to make these evaluations.  Critical judgments of grant applications by expert reviewers (i.e., other scientists) constitute peer review.  Expert reviewers often have approved research studies that non-scientists in the public regard as being a waste of money; as explained earlier, this lack of agreement largely is due to the very large difference in knowledge and technical experience.  The validity of decisions by the official referees is enlarged by the fact that research grant applications are evaluated and judged by several experts, thereby usually avoiding any one opinion from becoming a mistake.  Projects judged to have little conceivable significance for science, poor design, inadequate controls, mundane ideas, technical problems, etc., all usually are eliminated from funding by reviewers for the research grant agencies.  The official evaluation of research grant proposals is a filtering mechanism, and this includes evaluation of the costs and benefits. 

            In principle, all the expert evaluations of applications by scientists for research grants should lead to funding of only those research projects having importance for science and society.  Although this usually does happen, due to the very large number of research grant applications and the even larger number of reviewers, some small number of mistakes is made both for what is funded and what is not funded. 

The Cost/Benefits Question for the Total Scientific Research

            How can we best make a valid judgment about whether spending very large amounts of money on all scientific research is worthwhile?  Looking at the evaluations for many thousands of individual research projects and then averaging does not give a very satisfying answer.  Accordingly, we must ask here whether a different approach needs to be taken to obtain a more meaningful conclusion?  By looking at the totality of all funded research projects, then there is a much more solid basis upon which to make an evaluation of costs versus benefits.  I will explain this below, using the well-known examples of transistors and carbon nanotubes. 

            The invention and development of the transistor was initially only a physical curiosity (see the fascinating personal recollections by one of the leading research participants [1]).  Its discovery exemplifies basic research in action, because its ultimate usefulness was not foreseen.  Non-scientists all would have concluded that spending money for its discovery was pointless.  After much further research and many engineering developments, electronics and computers using transistors now are found everywhere in the modern world.  Once its practical importance was documented, the initial negative judgments rapidly changed to become strongly positive. 

            Carbon nanotubes were observed by Iijima in 1990-1991 while conducting basic research studies on a different type of carbon specimen with his electron microscope [2,3].  This unexpected observation of carbon nanotubes was a chance event, and is a wonderful example of serendipity in basic research.  Iijima was not trying to study carbon nanotubes, because nobody was aware that they existed!  Today, after further research investigations both in academia and industry, carbon nanotubes are found in several different important commercial products, and hundreds of scientists and engineers now are working on new uses for these very small materials within innovative products designed for medicine, energy storage, and high technology. 

            Early judgments about the worthiness of studying transistors and carbon nanotubes were negative and wrong.  The money produced from all the present widespread usage of transistors is absolutely gigantic, and probably is, or soon will be, matched by the value of new products and many developing uses for carbon nanotubes.  Thereby, the cost/benefits ratio for both are small, and all the money spent for their research studies must be judged to be very, very worthwhile.  Moreover, the dollars coming from these 2 research discoveries alone have more than paid for all the numerous other scientific investigations that have had a much less notable outcome.  Therefore, I believe that public funding of all worthy research studies is very worthwhile.  My positive conclusion about the huge pile of money spent on research is that this is good, because by enabling all the very numerous ordinary research investigations that result in less spectacular or even mundane results, the chances that some really great unanticipated breakthroughs will be produced are notably increased. 

            Money most certainly is not the only measure for significance of scientific research!  Investigations producing a breakthrough in research or a dramatic change in knowledge can have enormous importance for the progress of science.  One good example of this is the recent arrival of the new concept of nanoscience; this new branch of physical science deals with materials just slightly bigger than individual atoms and molecules.  Nanoscience now has extended into specialized areas of research, such as nanochemistry, nano-engineering, nanomedicine, nanotechnology, and, others [e.g., 4].  Nanoscience really represents a new way of thinking for scientists in these areas.  

Concluding Statements

            History is the ultimate judge for the worthiness of funding research studies!  From the considerations described above, I draw 3 conclusions.
1.  Basic research findings can take many years to develop into spectacular commercial products that are widely utilized.  The ultimate success and worthiness of specific grant-supported basic research is almost impossible to predict.
2.  For research projects in basic science, worthiness must be judged one at a time, and independently from practical usage.  Significance of results from this or that research project only can be judged validly by other expert scientists.
3.  The value of spending so much money to support scientific research is best measured by considering the totality of research results acquired by all funded studies.  When viewed in this light, the funding of numerous projects that turn out to be only ordinary is seen to be good because this increases the chances that some unanticipated spectacular findings are acquired and thereby greatly benefit both science and society. 


[1]  Mullis, K.B., 2012.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:
http://karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf .  

[2]  Iijima, S., & The Vega Science Trust, 1997.  Nanotubes: The materials of the 21st century.  Available on the internet at:  http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/71 .

[3]  Iijima, S., 2011.  The discovery of carbon nanotubes.  Available on the internet at:  http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/Iijima/sumioE.html .

[4]  XII International Conference on Nanostructured Materials, Moscow, Russia, 2014.  NANO 2014.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nano2014.org/ . 

 

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FUNDAMENTALS FOR BEGINNERS: WHAT IS SCIENCE? WHAT IS RESEARCH? WHAT ARE SCIENTISTS?

 
What is Science?                           What in the world is Science?     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

          Science is an organized search for the truth.  We can know that something is true by virtue of the evidence acquired by examiners of some object, process, or concept.   Science is divided classically into 3 component parts: biomedicine, chemistry, and physics; each of these large divisions is further broken down into many discrete subdivisions (i.e., bacterial genetics, human carcinogenesis and oncology, invertebrate zoology, mammalian physiology, plant pathology, plant proteomics, virology, etc., in biomedicine; analytical chemistry, nanochemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, polymer science, radiochemistry, solid state chemistry, etc., in chemistry; astronomy, atomic physics, geophysics, magnetism, materials science, mathematical physics, optics, rheology, etc., in physics). Some other large parts  of science are situated in all 3 divisions of science, and have to do with methodology and technical practices (e.g., crystallography, mathematics, microscopy, spectroscopy, statistics, etc.).

 

            Research is the scientific examination of some subject, and usually is produced by conducting experiments in a laboratory or in the field.  Scientists are specially trained people who perform  research studies as part of their search for the truth.  Everything and anything can be examined and analyzed, even if it has been very widely accepted as being true; the more that experimental results point to the same conclusion, the more we can be satisfied that some statement or concept really is true.  Research and science classically are divided into 2 fundamental types: basic science/research seeks new knowledge for its own sake, with no reference to any practical usage; applied science/research seeks new knowledge that enables known facts, materials, processes, or devices to be modified such that they acquire new or improved capabilities.  The scientists performing these 2 activities often are correspondingly labeled as being either basic scientists or applied scientists. 

 

            The experimental investigation of any research subject involves asking research questions (e.g., what are its size and structure, composition, component parts, genesis, functions and operation, relation to others of its type, interactions with the surrounding environment, assignment into somelarger category, etc., etc.).  The laboratory investigation or field study of one or more subjects or questions via many experiments constitutes a research project.  The experiments produce different types of research data (e.g., counts, images, measurements, observations, spectra, etc.).  The desired end results of experimental studies are research discoveries; these typically are a new concept, mechanism, cause or effect, analytic characterization, or interrelationship; the results from experimental research lead to publications, patents, new understanding, and new concepts, as well as to additional new research questions.  Scientific research thus is a means to the end of  discovering new truths. 

 

            Several related terms also need to be distinguished here.  An inventor is the discoverer of a new device, mechanism, principle, or process; some scientists also are inventors, but many inventors are non-scientists (i.e., often they are ordinary people without advanced education and special training in research).  Technology is a detailed development of some invented mechanism or process; typically, it begins from scientific discovery and then proceeds to modify the initial subject or object to become faster, cheaper, more specific, less dangerous, easier to make, etc. (e.g., a newly synthesized chemical coating applied to an existing fluorescent bulb makes the emitted light brighter and the lifetime of the bulb longer).  Engineers have advanced professional education and training, and work to modify (i.e., improve) some known device or process so that it has improved or new properties; engineers typically produce patents and commercial products, as well as professional publications.  The most common sequence of technological work leading to some new and wonderful commercial product starts with pure basic research, then shifts into applied research, and ends with engineering developments. 

 

            Ideally, science, research, scientists, engineers, and inventors all work to produce results that help people, society, and the entire world. 

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