Paul D. Heideman
Applied research starts with very specific and usually narrow questions and problems in order to produce a practical solution. These are questions such as: how to develop a specific new drug and treatment to cure a specific cancer, or of how to prevent an introduced predator species from driving a native species to extinction. Basic science research tries to identify questions that are likely to be important and then to answer those questions with principles that allow us to understand the phenomenon.
It often looks to the public as if research in applied science is more useful and provides a higher pay-off than basic research. This is because the applied science actually deals with problems we know are important problems. However, in reality, both kinds of science are extremely important--if we focus only on obvious problems using established knowledge (applied science), then we'll only refine existing knowledge. Scientific research is, fundamentally, about learning things about the natural world that we don't already know. It turns out that the things we don't know about our world and the universe probably far outnumber, by many orders of magnitude, the things we do know. The rate of astonishing new findings and insights in science continues to grow, not decrease. Basic research, studies of questions that may have no immediately obvious practical use, is the source of these kinds of big surprises that lead to ever more useful innovations from applied science.
Economists have produced estimates of which kind of science pays off better, in terms of either monetary return or 'quality of life' measures. The results depend in part on some assumptions about how one measures investment and return. In general, however, both tend to be highly profitable over time scales that range from a few years to several decades for applied research, and over scales that usually range from a decade to many decades for basic science. In addition, a higher and more predictable portion of applied research projects pay off. A lower and less predictable proportion of basic research projects pay off in some measurable way, but those that do pay off sometimes pay off spectacularly. Because of the longer time-scales for pay-off in basic research, most economists argue that basic science needs governmental or other non-profit kinds of financing to achieve discovery rates at an optimal pace. For-profit corporations cannot fund enough basic science because the pay-offs are too distant and too unpredictable. Corporations would go bankrupt while they waited for a pay-off.
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Last updated 9/01/2009