Research, in the public interest
In an article published yesterday in the Irish Times John Kelly, former Registrar of University College Dublin, reflects on what the state might legitimately expect from the very significant sums of money it has invested in university research. I am not absolutely sure what point he is making in the piece, but from the final paragraph it seems he feels that engineering is being neglected in research funding, and that there should be more state support for ‘applied’ research.
So what is he talking about? More specifically, what is ‘applied’ research? The latter question is addressed on a US government website as follows:
‘Applied research is designed to solve practical problems of the modern world, rather than to acquire knowledge for knowledge’s sake. One might say that the goal of the applied scientist is to improve the human condition. For example, applied researchers may investigate ways to:
• improve agricultural crop production
• treat or cure a specific disease
• improve the energy efficiency of homes, offices, or modes of transportation.
Some scientists feel that the time has come for a shift in emphasis away from purely basic research and toward applied science. This trend, they feel, is necessitated by the problems resulting from global overpopulation, pollution, and the overuse of the earth’s natural resources.’
In all of this, ‘applied’ research is usually contrasted with ‘basic’, ‘fundamental’, ‘pure’ or ‘blue skies’ research. Here is what the same website says about it:
‘Basic (aka fundamental or pure ) research is driven by a scientist’s curiosity or interest in a scientific question. The main motivation is to expand man’s knowledge , not to create or invent something. There is no obvious commercial value to the discoveries that result from basic research. For example, basic science investigations probe for answers to questions such as:
• How did the universe begin?
• What are protons, neutrons, and electrons composed of?
• How do slime molds reproduce?
• What is the specific genetic code of the fruit fly?
Most scientists believe that a basic, fundamental understanding of all branches of science is needed in order for progress to take place. In other words, basic research lays down the foundation for the applied science that follows. If basic work is done first, then applied spin-offs often eventually result from this research. As Dr. George Smoot of LBNL says, “People cannot foresee the future well enough to predict what’s going to develop from basic research. If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears.”‘
I confess that I have become impatient with this dichotomy and have considerable doubts whether it expresses anything useful in the context of modern knowledge development. It is true that research may in some cases be different in nature because it is conducted for commercial reasons – such as what goes on in a corporate research laboratory – but very often the substance of such research is not particularly ‘applied’ in the above sense. So for example, some of the major companies in ICT and life sciences have been working on what are really ‘blue skies’ projects in order to develop the next generation of their product lines. In DCU I came to a point where I did not allow anyone to use the term ‘applied’ research in any of our documentation.
It seems to me to be more useful, if funding is to make a practical difference to people’s lives or to society more widely, to think of appropriate research as ‘translational’ rather than ‘applied’. This is a term that originated in medical research, and was a reference to the translating research from ‘bench to bed’ – in other words, medical research done to benefit the patient at the point of care. The actual research, so directed, could be either ‘basic’ or ‘applied’ in the old sense. The term ‘translational’ can be used more widely to refer to almost any area of research where the reason for doing it is to bring about a benefit to society or key groups within it.
Where funding agencies have a remit to address national or global needs, it is sensible for them to require the research they are supporting (or at least a lot of it) to be translational in this broader sense. This does not mean that they should avoid funding basic research, but that they should plan what areas of research are likely to be particularly beneficial in the public interest. This may be important in particular in the case of countries that may not have the resources to fund research in everything and anything. It does not however mean that all research should (or actually, could) be centrally directed, nor does it mean that research needs to be linked directly with commercial projects or services.
We now know much more about how the pursuit of discovery, knowledge and innovation can support social and economic needs. The old concept of applied research, while still having some purpose, is not necessarily the most useful way of addressing those needs.
So, to go back to John Kelly’s argument, do I think that the state should fund more applied research? Not really, no. In today’s knowledge economy what was once seen as applied research is now really the ‘D’ in ‘R&D’, and whether it is done in a corporate setting or in a university it should probably be funded, at least as a rule, by the corporate organisations that want to benefit from it. Strategically oriented translational research – in the sciences, engineering and the humanities – on the other hand is something that governments should want to develop. Understanding that distinction is now, I believe, the golden ticket.