Pure or applied?

Those who work with me know that there are few things likely to irritate me more than attempts to distinguish between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research. Often this taxonomy is used to suggest that people or institutions pursuing ‘applied’ research are doing something less intellectually satisfying and maybe less prestigious. As far as I am concerned, this is a distinction that lost any objective meaning a long time ago.

I was therefore interested to read a comment recently in the New York Times blog section by a Stanford University biophysicist who pointed out that, right back to Archimedes, research that might have appeared to be ‘blue skies’ work actually had practical objectives and significant application. In fact, the underlying purpose of absolutely any research that is worth supporting must be to find a way of translating the outcome to a use that benefits society. A good friend of mine who is a noted scholar in philosophy used to tell me that the only really desirable research was ‘useless’ research; but on the other hand globally leading philosophical inquiry has produced results that have been applied in such diverse areas as computer programming and the ethics of healthcare.

Perhaps the desire to identify and protect research that is variously described as ‘pure’, ‘basic’ or ‘blue skies’ is based more on the idea that at least some researchers should be allowed to work without any pressure or direction based on the needs of industry, or even of culture or politics, and that they should be encouraged to do work just for its own sake, without any concern as to how it might be used later. There is in fact no doubt that this is a vital element of any appropriate university research strategy. But it should not be conducted in a silo, nor should it be seen as something where the results will not be assessed as to their potential use.

The whole purpose of a university is that its work should be useful: to the students who study there, as well as to the wider society so that it may benefit from the education provided and from the research undertaken. Suggesting that there are different types of research that are or should be separated from each other, perhaps even in different types of institutions, is wholly counter-productive.

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9 Comments on “Pure or applied?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I agreed with you up until the last bit.
    ‘..different types of research that are or should be separated from each other, perhaps even in different types of institutions, is wholly counter-productive…’ in this you are in error, I believe. There is a very real difference between the apartheid within a subject -say Physics- on the Pure/Applied and rational decisions to put enough eggs in one basket that you end up with critical mass. Ending up in each of the Uni with focus on one area, Physics in UCC and so on. This may give the plus that the Arts are not stripped of assets to feed a crowd of very expensive insatiable Gannets with maws facing in all directions.

    • Thanks, Vincent. I may not have expressed myself well: I am not suggesting there shouldn’t be any specialisation between institutions; I just don’t believe that some institutions should be labelled as focusing on ‘applied’ research, and others on ‘pure’. Subject area specialisation is fine and, in Ireland, necessary.

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    But this is nonsense; there is this myth that applied scientists are looked down on and that they are not respected because their work is applied. This simply is not true; sometimes, like some people in purer areas, they are looked down on because their work isn’t deep and always, always, there is rivalry between different areas, one side saying they are better for one reason, the other, for another. However, researchers doing pure research, the sort of research that can really only be done in universities, come under huge pressure, continual pressure, to show that what they do is immediately relevant. It is so annoying, so, so annoying when the blessed, researcher held to a lower standard of depth and quality because of some obvious, immediate, often spurious, application of their research, then whine about this so called snobbery. The winners want to deny the losers even the luxury of having their unfair treatment recognised.

    In fact, of course, all research is intended to have an application and no one has ever proved that so called applied research has any more application in the medium term than pure research as it name should apply. What is not clear however, is whether research that has an obvious, immediate application is done more efficiently in the academy or in enterprise. Nor is it clear that applied scientist are as good as purer scientists at teaching the sort of transferable research skills students need to learn. Mathematicians can teach mathematics, engineers can teach students how to solve a particular mathematics problem, usually one that has already been solved.

    • Aoife, I’m not entirely sure what it is that you are saying is ‘nonsense’… Just to be precise, I didn’t suggest that applied scientists are looked down upon – but rather that it is sometimes suggested that some institutions (usually ones accorded lesser respect) are more suited to ‘applied research’. My argument is that the distinction between ‘pure’ and applied’ is not a meaningful one, precisely for the reason that you give, i.e. that ‘all research is intended to have an application.’

      As to the best place for doing research, that will often depend on how far away from the market the research is, and what kind of people/skills are needed for it. And who has the IP in the first place,

  3. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Yes, sorry, I meant to agree with you, but, as it were, from the other side.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    The relevant distinction is not between “pure” and “applied” research. It is between disinterested and interested research. Universities must be, above all, places for disinterested research. Indeed, even in the neo-liberal terms that dominate the debate in mercenary cultures like contemporary Ireland, it makes sense to preserve them as places for this sort of research. For they are the only places in a society where such research can go on. The spinoffs from research that was not directly “aiming” at any particular (remunerated) goal is likely to be far more useful to a society than research that is always beholden to capital’s or the existing government’s ideas of what matters.

    • My view, Ernie, is that there needs to be room for both. But I agree absolutely that ‘disinterested’ research is something we must protect and encourage.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        We can agree on that. However, given that the university is the only place in contemporary Western societies where disinterested research can take place (whereas interested research takes place in thousands of corporate environments), and given that untold benefits are likely to accrue to mankind as a result of such research (and, conversely, such benefits will be closed off if we only pursue research that we believe to be financially worthwhile today), the university must be primarily devoted to such disinterested research. Interested research, if it is truly profitable, should mostly be left to those whose business it is (literally) to pursue profit. It should not be the case that a tiny rump of disinterested research is merely “permitted” to be carried out while all of the university’s budgetary resources are devoted to the pursuit of a buck. That is to put the cart before the horse.

        The ways in which disinterested research can be inhibited or stifled are many and various. Most of these methods–from the choking off of funding to subtle harassment and not so subtle intimidation–are being used in Irish universities today. This is a great peril and I’d like to see you speak out about it.

        • Ernie, firstly I should emphasise that harassment and intimidation are obviously unacceptable. However, the broader issue is complex. The distinction between ‘disinterested’ and ‘interested’ research is one worth pursuing, but it’s not as straightforward as you might think. At some level, almost no funded research is disinterested, because there is always the expectation of the funder as to outcomes, even if the funder is dispensing public money. The only really ‘disinterested’ research is done by people who are working in their own time and using just their own resources; and there could never be much of that, though there’s still some in the humanities.

          So you may really be addressing one other option: undirected research, in which nobody other than the researcher is setting the agenda. This should always be a feature in every university, but it is most effective in a large system. If all research were conducted solely at the individual’s discretion and to their agenda, then in a country like Ireland we would never get critical mass in anything very much, except perhaps by accident. But we need to attract leading researchers from overseas, as well as nurturing our own – and typically they are attracted and retained because they are part of a larger group. To that extent the research ecosystem (to use a term I have begun to find really irritating) needs to be a mixed one, with some organisation and direction (not all top down, I hasten to add), and some areas where it is left to the individual or to small groups. That is what I have been aiming to secure here in DCU, at any rate.

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