Thursday, April 19, 2012

Industry doesn't need applied research, nor does it need pure research

A recent conference conducted by the New Zealand Association of Scientists has drawn attention to the argument about whether funding should be provided for pure research, or for applied research. This is a common, ongoing dichotomy in many debates over research, particularly that funded from the public purse.

The reality, however, is that this debate is based on the erroneous assumption that industry benefits only from applied research, and that research directed at assisting industry must be applied.

This is an oversimplification, based on the definitions of research developed by Vannevar Bush in the post-World War II era of economic expansion.

Donald Stokes in his 1997 book Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation argues that there is a far stronger link between research of the more basic nature and innovation in industry than many appreciate.  In fact, the dominant form of research is use-inspired, regardless of whether it is at the discovery or the application part of the cycle.

Yet, industry (and a large body of policy-makers) is lead to believe that it needs applied research. Thus the attention has turned to wants, rather than needs.

What industry needs is research that is appropriate to solve the problem at hand, or exploit the opportunity recognised. (And this is best driven by better problem definition, not the meaningless classification of science).

Very often the real needs of industry cannot be met from available knowledge, which means that the research it needs must be of a more discovery nature. As Stokes eloquently puts it when he uses Louis Pasteur as his example, the more involved you become in the application of scientific knowledge in the market, the more you identify even more fundamental questions to be answered. These fundamental questions need to be answered to enable full exploitation in the market. 

Others explain the concept better than me, such as this contribution from Washington State University.   

The Lessons of Pasteur's Example can be summed up:

         Pasteur was a chemist & microbiologist
         Driven to solve the problems of industry - fermentation
         Breakthroughs include vaccines (rabies & anthrax), germ theory & pasteurisation (of course)
         While ‘use inspired’ he answered fundamental science questions, because he needed the answers in order to answer industry questions
         Suggests that industry focused research includes both applied and pure/fundamental
         Focus should be on outcomes, not type of research

What is the utility of all of this? 

Countless hours are wasted on trying to determine whether the public should be supporting applied research or basic research. Far less time is spent on identifying the priorities to be researched, or the questions and challenges to be answered.  More time spent on the latter will enable the scarce public resources to be better targeted at activities that make a difference.

Once the priorities are identified it is easier to determine how much effort is needed in discovery and how much in application – that choice depends on what we know about the field, how much information and knowledge has already been discovered, and what remain the unanswered questions.

Deciding what to do on the basis of whether it is pure or applied research does little more than distort the research agenda. Research is research, and the nature of the research depends on how much knowledge we have in relation to the problem or the opportunity we are examining.

Now, a debate about national priorities - that's an entirely different beast! As is how much is needed to be invested!  How do we best define the problems, or characterise the opportunities?

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