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.

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4 Comments on “Research, in the public interest”

  1. Vincent Says:

    There are certain phrases that cause me to colour everything before it and after. Global overpopulation is one of those phrases. And when it is followed by ‘finite resources’, there is a thought pattern in play that will lead inexorable to eugenics/head measuring/racial typing, onwards to the unworthy surplus other.

    As to the rest of it, lets see, €1,350mil. And science gets €1,148mil with another €120mil going to engineering. Leaving €55ish mil going to Arts. Or €10 mil or thereabouts a year.
    Given that €270mil a year to science is on top of all other moneys. So lets say 10 persons to the €Mil thats 2700 doing research. I have to ask have we a colony on the floor of the Celtic Sea I’ve not heard about. Or are we building the next generation of space shuttle. Hell, have we actually got off our collective a&*%$ and gone and built an nuclear reactor.
    I know we’ve an oar in with CERN and the European Space agency and a few other bits and bobs that are pretty costly and can be considered Glory-O projects. But this amount of money on top of general expenses in a country where the IMF is running oversight is bordering on the ludicrous.
    Mind you not as ludicrous as the tax subsidy for private medical insurance. And the truly incredible situation where €100mil is passed over to private schools AND THEN handing tax rebates on the fees paid.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Interesting post, replacing the term ‘applied’ with ‘translational’ is a shrewd compromise which while broadening the definition does not, however, entirely remove the fundamental dichotomy. I wonder how this would ‘translate’ into the British publicly funded research environment, where the concept of ‘impact’ (whose definition is still raging) is paramount in light of the next REF.

    On a general note, whenever such fundamental thought dichotomies come up I cannot help thinking of Derrida, (the so-called father of Deconstructionism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Derrida) who better than any other described how western thinking has been founded upon the ‘logic’ of binary oppositions, (mind/body, rational/emotional, freedom/determinism, man/woman , nature/culture) the task of the thinker, according to Derrida, is to twist free of these oppositions, and of the forms of intellectual and cultural life which they structure.

  3. John Carter Says:

    I fund all my research myself. I do it out of curiosity. One of my current interests is to find and enumerate all possible Buckyshapes. The only costs so far are for matchsticks, 2mm nuts, superglue and magnetic balls. I have written software to aid visualization and help generate and enumerate possibilities. It’s great fun and the results could conceivably be used in producing new carbon-based materials.

    Whether this is ‘pure’ or ‘applied’ research I’m not sure. I’m just interested in finding things out using my own abilities, using practical experiment and introspection. It’s satisfying to see the knowledge build up, to see theories and proofs emerge, and to continually scope and rescope the work.

    ‘Pure’ or ‘applied/applicable’ – ‘theoretical’ or ‘practical’ – ‘think-talk’ or ‘think-create’ – ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’? Are these useful categories? To add to the terminological confusion, in a ‘knowledge economy’, knowledge is itself a marketable product. Further, thinking is one of the things people do, so the distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ is further eroded.

    The false dichotomy between supposedly ‘ideal’ forms and their imperfect practical manifestion is down to Socrates and his Sophist buddies. As is so often the case, the philosophers lagged well behind the artisans, who even then must have realized that theories originate ultimately from practice, not the other way around.

    Ultimately, the primacy of ‘theory’ over ‘mere practice’ arose (and is maintained even today) in the attempt of one class (the thinker-talkers) to subjugate and appropriate the useful output of another (the thinker-creators).

  4. cormaccormac Says:

    Yuk! It is a difficult and vexing subject, but I have to say that I like the word applied and I hate the word translational. Applied means exactly what you would expect – research applied for a useful technological outcome.
    For example, I was quite unhappy in the Department of Pure and Applied Physics at Trinity College because I felt the department research was almost entirely applied in nature – specifically, it was focused on the area of making better, smarter , more useful materials. Very important stuff, but not hugely appealing to those interested in the nature of space and time.
    The old word basic or fundamental also mean exactly what it says on the tin – and George Smoot should know – knowledge literally for the sake of it (and who knows where it may lead?).
    For me, the word ‘translational’ adds nothing to the debate!


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