Research Reconsidered

Basic? Applied? Who knows, who cares? Let’s move on to more interesting and important questions.

A group of experienced analysts and practitioners of science policy gathered in Washington in late November to discuss the theme of “Basic Research in the Service of National Objectives.” The purpose was to continue a discussion that began with two articles published in the Fall 1999 Issues: “A Vision of Jeffersonian Science” by Gerald Holton and Gerhard Sonnert and “The False Dichotomy: Scientific Creativity and Utility” by Lewis M. Branscomb. Holton, Sonnert, and Branscomb organized this meeting and set the framework for the discussion.

On the surface this could be seen as the ten thousandth rehashing of the battle between basic and applied research, a debate that has been present in the United States at least since the end of World War II, when Vannevar Bush locked horns with Sen. Harley Kilgore of West Virginia. Bush argued for protecting the freedom of scientists to do basic research, whereas Kilgore wanted to see scientific expertise used more directly to meet specific national needs. The organizers of this meeting believe that this was never the real issue. They recognize that as far back as the Lewis and Clark expedition launched by Thomas Jefferson through the 19th century initiatives to improve the productivity of agriculture and in numerous recent programs, particularly at the National Institutes of Health, government has been supporting research that does not fit into either of these categories. They want to move the discussion away from simplistic pigeonholing to address the more difficult questions that arise when we consider how to decide what type of research is needed in specific areas, who has the talent and facilities to conduct that research, and how do we ensure that the results of that research reaches those who can use it. None of these questions can be answered by creating a rigid taxonomy of research or narrowly defined roles for public and private research.

Many of the speakers with government experience described their work in terms that made it clear that the basic-applied distinction was not a core concern. Allan Bromley, science advisor to George Bush, and Jack Gibbons, science advisor to Bill Clinton, discussed activities that took place during their watches that transcend this dichotomy. National Cancer Institute (NCI) director Richard Klausner described NCI’s success in creating a rich research mix that covers the spectrum from applied to basic in ways that make those terms irrelevant. National Science Foundation (NSF) director Rita Colwell described new cross-cutting initiatives in areas such as nanotechnology and biocomplexity that are designed to ignore disciplinary and other traditional categories.

Better questions

When the meeting turned to discussions of some particular areas of national concern, it became apparent that questions of what was basic research and what applied were beside the point. What emerged was a much more stimulating consideration of the various research concerns that arose with each topic. William Clark of Harvard University observed that in order to make progress with international efforts to deal with climate change a critical need is to develop home-grown scientific expertise in developing countries so that they can participate fully in negotiations. Nora Sabelli of NSF pointed out that in addition to doing more research into how to make education more effective, we also have to ensure that schools of education train teachers to understand the nature of research so that they will be able to apply it to their work in the classroom. John Holdren, a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the chair of several of its energy studies, identified areas where federal energy research could serve the nation but left unanswered the question of whether the current national laboratory system is well suited to do the type of research needed. In each area that was discussed the critical concerns were different. They demanded imagination, creativity, and the elimination of traditional definitions of research and of government’s role.

The goal of the meeting was to advance a more nuanced and more useful discussion of research and its contribution to the nation’s well-being. The senior officials and academics who have fought the old battles for decades are clearly eager to leave them behind. In her closing address, American Association for the Advancement of Science president Mary Good noted that most of the invited participants were no longer young. She issued an invitation and a challenge to the next generation to find fresh and more useful terms for exploring the nexus of research, government, and national goals. We hope to see the results of that exploration reflected in future articles in Issues.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Research Reconsidered.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 2 (Winter 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter 2001