The History of “Basic Research”

By Trish Roche

Trish Roche
Aug 28, 2018 · 5 min read

It’s a question that keeps coming up, even more so after entering the world of knowledge translation, where effective communication is critical to success [1, 2]. Literature describes what “basic research” isn’t (concerned with practical outcomes), more often than what it is [3]. This creates a tension between science for the sake of science (basic research) and purpose-driven science (applied research)[4].

In this post, I set out to unearth the history of the term “basic research”, its use in different contexts, and why it is still used today to describe fundamental biomedical science.

What IS “Basic Research”?

Although the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) lists “Fund Basic Research” as a program activity, the only formal definition I could find for “basic research” on the Government of Canada website was from the Canada Revenue Agency: “work undertaken for the advancement of scientific knowledge without a specific practical application in view”.

A Google search produces the standard Wikipedia entry and various articles with a similar two-part description of “basic research” including (a) a goal of furthering knowledge and (b) a complete disregard for potential application of results. One could argue that all research seeks to “further knowledge”, so really the only consistent defining feature of “basic research” seems to be a lack of consideration for application, but this provides no real description of what basic researchers do, or how it’s done.

Where Did “Basic Research” Come From?

Interestingly, the first recorded use I could find of “basic research” was in the 1920s and had nothing to do with the ideas we associate with the term today. It was a line in the 1921 Year in Agriculture Report describing the functions of the US Department of Agriculture: “the basic work of the [Agriculture] department is in the field of research” [5].

But in the early 20th century context of war, scientists across the globe felt increasing pressure to justify government spending on research that did not directly contribute to the very real problems society was facing [6]. Use of “basic research” depended on the audience — amongst themselves, scientists used the term to describe ‘pure’ or ‘fundamental’ work, but when talking to decision-makers, “basic science” was touted as a source of knowledge for applied research [6].

Nonetheless, use of the term was increasing — in 1925 the prominent magazine Science replaced “fundamental research” with “basic research” in describing a report advocating for government support for science in the UK [7]. In 1945, with publication of his report Science — The Endless Frontier [8], Vannevar Bush (Director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development) ‘revolutionized’ discussions about science policy. In his report, Bush invoked the idea of “basic research” as the source of all knowledge needed for applied research, positioning “basic research” as the initial stage in a linear model of innovation that is too often invoked in discussions of translational research, knowledge translation, and the ‘flow’ of knowledge to action [5, 9].

The Ambiguity of “Basic Research”

Some historians argue that the term “basic research” isn’t really a distinct field of science, but rather an emotionally-charged symbol of societal, economical, and political expectations and demands of research and development [6]. The power of symbolism comes from its vagueness — allowing people to “transfer [their] private loves and hates and hopes and fears” [10]. Instead of being defined in concrete terms, “basic research” symbolizes the importance of science and a common desire for the pursuit of truth. Bush himself admitted that use of the term “basic research” in Science — The Endless Frontier was explicit and purposeful, due to its “malleability in political discourse” [11] — just malleable enough to “embody the vastly different conceptions of science” [6]. When it comes down to it, any attempt to define “basic research” would undermine its power as a symbol — perhaps this is why confusion and tension exists around the term.

This begs the question of why an idea that is so elusive is still used so widely? If “basic research” doesn’t have clear boundaries, why do we use it to describe a certain niche of research?

Why “Basic Research” Persists

In the article that inspired this post, Basic Research as a Political Symbol, Roger Pielke Jr. argues that the sustainability of “basic research” as a symbol of fundamental science rests on three factors [6]:

  1. Misinterpretation of an economic model of growth. The largest driver of growth, “technologic change” was misinterpreted as “technology” — again referring to the linear model of translation, and a reliance on “basic research’. In actuality, “technologic change” was meant as “a shorthand expression for any kind of shift in the production function” (as described by the economist who formalized the model in 1957) [12];
  2. Its adopted use as a formal category for accounting and statistics on research and development by institutions; and
  3. The lack of a suitable alternative.

If not “basic research”, then what? What do we call fundamental science that is done without consideration of application? Maybe the entire system of distinguishing ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ as discrete realms of research is problematic in itself. Maybe, in the interest of effective knowledge translation, our focus should be on how scientists can collaborate, share information, and improve our knowledge, regardless of whether or not application is a consideration.

What are your thoughts on the origins of “basic research”? How is it defined in your community/institution? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @KnowledgeNudge.

References

  1. Jansson SM et al. In for the Long Haul: Knowledge Translation Between Academic and Nonprofit Organizations. Qual Health Res, 2010;20(1):131–143.
  2. Gainforth HL et al. The role of interpersonal communication in the process of knowledge mobilization within a community-based organization: a network analysis. Implement Sci, 2014;9(59).
  3. National Research Council. The Concept of Basic Research. Science, Medicine, and Animals. Washington, DC: 2004.
  4. Schauz D. What is Basic Research? Insights from Historical Semantics. Minerva, 2014;52(3):273–328.
  5. United States Department of Agriculture. The year in agriculture: The secretary’s report to the president. Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture. Washington, DC: 1921.
  6. Pielke, R Jr. Basic Research as a Political Symbol. Minerva, 2012;50(3):339–361.
  7. Science. The encouragement of basic research. Science, 1925;61:43–44.
  8. Bush, V. Science — The Endless Frontier. Office of Scientific Research and Development, Washington, DC: 1945. Available at: https://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nsf50/vbush1945.htm.
  9. Morris, ZS, Wooding S, Grant J. The answer is 17 years, what is the question: understanding time lags in translational research. J R Soc Med, 2011;104:510–520.
  10. Lasswell, HD. Propaganda and promotional activities, an annotated bibliography. Chicago, IL: 1969.
  11. Bush, V. Pieces of the action. New York: 1970.
  12. Solow, RM. Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function. Rev Economics Stats, 1957;39(3):312–320.

About the Author

Trish Roche is a knowledge broker with the George & Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI). Her primary interests lie in advancing the science of knowledge translation, especially in the realm of basic biomedical science. Find her on Twitter @TrishMcNish.

KnowledgeNudge

Publishing bi-weekly, we focus on all things knowledge translation (KT) – synthesis, exchange, application & dissemination – from a health perspective. Topics include the science of KT, patient engagement, and media & dissemination.

Trish Roche

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Optimist & Knowledge Broker @KnowledgeNudge @CHIMBca / Passion for advancing KT in basic research

KnowledgeNudge

Publishing bi-weekly, we focus on all things knowledge translation (KT) – synthesis, exchange, application & dissemination – from a health perspective. Topics include the science of KT, patient engagement, and media & dissemination.