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 . 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.
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.
 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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