Tag Archives: applied science

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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INVENTORS & SCIENTISTS

            Inventors work to design and make some new device or substance, or, to discover some new process.  Ideally, these self-directed creators secure a patent and are able to get commercial production and usage started.  Basic scientists work to discover new truth, test a hypothesis, or disprove an accepted false truth.  They do this by conducting experiments, so as to investigate various research questions and to test specific proposals (e.g., about cause and effect).  Commercial products can follow basic discoveries only through further studies and much work by others in applied research and engineering.  Applied scientists and engineers seek to change the properties or improve the performance of some known model device or existing commercial product. 

 

            Certain inventors also are scientists, and some scientists also are inventors.  Both make discoveries, tend to be very creative, and can have major effects on their fellow humans.  In general, almost all modern scientists have earned a doctoral degree, but many inventors are ordinary people who have not acquired an advanced academic diploma.  Scientists generally work in a laboratory or out in the field, while inventors often work in their basement, attic, or garage.  Scientists often seek in-depth knowledge and can have wide professional interests, while inventors usually are highly focused on knowledge only in the small area involving their invention(s).  Today, scientists most often are employees receiving a paycheck (i.e., from companies or universities); inventors often toil on their own time while being paid for some regular job; inventors usually receive no money until their invention advances to attract cosponsors or to initiate commercial development and production. 

 

            By tradition, both inventors and scientists often have vigorous curiosity and a driving determination.  Both inventors and scientists can be highly individualistic people with flamboyant personalities; inventors especially often encounter remarkable adventures with their work activities.  Inventors of exceptional caliber always are controversial and do not come forth very often.  Probably the most famous inventor in history of the USA is Thomas A. Edison (1847 – 1931) [1-3]; he is frequently recognized for re-inventing or vastly improving the incandescent light bulb; discovering the phonograph (sound recorder and player); inventing the kinetograph (cinematographic recorder), kinetoscope (cinema viewer and projector), and a simple cylindrical voice recorder (for dictation); constructing an urban electrical generation and distribution system; and, inventing an improved electrical storage battery.  Edison received his first patent in 1868, for an electronic vote counter intended to be used in a state legislature; by his death at age 84, he had acquired the phenomenal total of 1,093 patents [1-3].  In addition to being both an inventor and a scientific researcher, Edison also was a vigorous industrialist; he founded a small  manufacturing company that now has grown into the industrial giant, General Electric.  Edison  had factory facilities built adjacent to his extensive research center and large private home/estate in West Orange, New Jersey; the laboratory and house are part of the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, and both can be very enjoyably visited in person [4].  It is remarkable to note that Edison was been home- and self-schooled.  Thomas Edison is remembered today as simultaneously being a life-long inventor, a scientist, an engineer, and an industrialist. 

 

            Another immensely creative inventor and visionary scientist was Nikola Tesla (1856 -1943) [5,6].   Born in what is now Croatia and educated in Europe, the young Tesla moved to New York where he worked directly with Thomas Edison.  Tesla’s brilliance in designing and improving electrical circuits and devices was evident with his invention of a small motor that could successfully utilize alternating current (AC), which he also invented; Edison and others had developed and forcefully promoted the use of direct current (DC) for electrical power generation and distribution in the USA, but AC later proved to be much better for practical use.  Tesla probably was the true inventor of radio, and, might have been the discover of x-rays [5,6].  He also designed and built circuits and special apparatus for radio and television transmissions, recorded one of the first x-ray images of a human hand, designed and invented fluorescent light bulbs as a new type of electric lamp, and, experimented with the progenitors of radar, diathermy machines, and automobile ignition coils [5,6].  Tesla utilized ozone to make water potable.  In 1960, the standard scientific unit of magnetic flux was designated as “the Tesla” in his honor.  Despite the extravagent Hollywood version of Nikola Tesla as the primordial “mad scientist”, he now is widely recognized and acclaimed as a visionary throughout the world; he now is seen as having been an amazingly creative and constructive inventor, as well as a determined researcher and explorer in electrical engineering [5,6]. 

 

[1]   Beals, G., 1999.  The biography of Thomas Edison.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thomasedison.com/biography.html . 

[2]   Bedi, J., The Lemelson Center, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2013.  Edison’s story.  Available on the internet at:  http://invention.smithsonian.org/centerpieces/edison/000_story_02.asp . 

[3]   Bellis, M., 2013.  The inventions of Thomas Edison.  History of phonograph – lightbulb – motion pictures.  Available on the internet at:  http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bledison.htm . 

[4]   National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2013.  Thomas Edision National Historical Park.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nps.gov/edis/index.htm .

[5]   Serbia SOS, 2013.  Available on the internet by first finding Famous Serbs on the display at the following blog, and then clicking on “Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) – Scientist and Inventor, the Genius who Lit the World”, at: http://serbiasos.blogspot.com/p/serbs.html .

[6]   Twenty-First Century Books, 2013.  Interesting facts about Nikola Tesla – Table of contents.        Available on the internet at:  http://www.tfcbooks.com/teslafaq/toc.htm . 

 

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