From Archimedes to Edison, attempts to improve quality of life have dictated a need for advances in science and technology. These advances are now widely recognised, if not fully understood as the key enablers of increasingly prosperous societies.
And despite this long history, the process of managing the expanding frontiers of new knowledge in a way that will benefit society is a work in progress. This is largely due to the unpredictable nature of scientific discovery most famously illustrated by Archimedes, when, upon stepping into the bath, he suddenly realised that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the submerged portion of his body. His discovery provided the solution to the previously intractable problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects and led to further advances in assessing the density and purity of precious metals among other things.
In the modern world little has changed in how new knowledge is acquired. However, in an attempt to get the best value for their limited investments, governments have devised processes to try to manage its discovery and application.
Interestingly there has been a propensity to divide scientific research into a one-dimensional continuum starting with pure (sometimes known as blue-skies) research progressing through to applied research and on to technology transfer; the defining characteristic of pure research being that it seeks new knowledge with no view as to its application, while applied research seeks solutions to industrial problems.
Such a continuum has been the basis of R and D funding prioritisation in advanced economies around the world since it was promulgated by Vannevar Bush following World War II. Persistent debates over public funding suggest this mindset does not accurately reflect the process of science and technology development.
The dynamic nature of the discovery of new knowledge and its commercial application can be observed in the remarkable career of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose breakthroughs ranged from the first rabies and anthrax vaccines to paving the way for germ theory and pasteurisation. Pasteur was not driven by a quest for new knowledge for its own sake but was motivated by a desire to better understand and solve the problems of industry. His work is an early demonstration that many, perhaps most, near-to-market problems exist because the knowledge to solve them has not been discovered.
In his early career, he concentrated largely on uncovering new knowledge, but as he did so he came across other, previously unforeseen questions. For example, while working as a chemist at the age of 22 he sought a theoretical understanding of why tartaric acid crystals derived from bio-mass rotated the plane of polarised light while the chemically synthesised form did not. His experiments revealed that the naturally occurring compound is chiral, meaning its molecules exist in one of two possible crystal structures, each the mirror image of the other. In the process of uncovering this new knowledge, he laid the building blocks for the modern experimental science of crystallography, which is today used in one form or another in everything from gemstone cutting to DNA analysis.
Pasteur’s remarkable career uncovered whole new branches of science – such as microbiology – and, as he developed as a scientist, he began to seek to satisfy both theoretical and practical goals.
Of particular note is the fact that as the problems Pasteur chose to solve became increasingly applied in nature, the nature of his research to solve them became more fundamental.
I have drawn my Pasteur example for Donald Stokes. In his 1997 book Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation Stokes argues that there is a far stronger link between research of the more basic nature and innovation in industry than many appreciate. He argues that 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.
Pasteur’s research agenda was use-inspired. Understanding and exploiting the dichotomy between applied and theoretical goals is perhaps the reason behind the breadth of his contribution.
This philosophy could be instructive for modern policymakers seeking to get the most from limited investment funds and move away from the outmoded, linear model of R and D. The effective management of applied research operations is much more complicated than simplistic models, such as that of Vannevar Bush, suggest.
As previously stated, the common ongoing debate over research funding is about whether funding should be provided for pure research, or for applied research. 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 - 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.
What many of us in science know is that often the real needs of industry (and the many intractable problems of society) 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.
The lessons of Pasteur's Example can be summed up:
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 needed for any situation 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? And how do we do a better job of telling the science story?
Scientific research is a resource that must be managed, and if it is to be managed it needs be understood.
Stokes, Donald E (1997) Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Brookings Institution Press
Dodgson M and Gann D (2010) Innovation: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press