If we reap what we sow, is it time to rethink the basic:applied research debate?

Dr Felicity Kelliher

Posted: 8 November, 2017

The same principles apply to research. The ‘seeds’ that come from basic research are the catalyst for future applied crops. Basic research may not survive based on unforeseen application challenges, while some insights may evolve in unexpected ways. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was discovered in this way. Thus, applied research requires knowledge of the world in which these seeds are planted to successfully reap the crop. The temptation may be to stick with what we know to avoid the cost of sowing new basic research, particularly if there are penalties for failure. Over time, the land itself is stripped of its knowledge nutrients as new insights diminish and research dulls in the applied field. Even when the seeds reproduce, crops may no longer grow as anticipated and consumers may not want the output. Eventually nothing will grow there at all.

Expecting immediate return on research investment can stunt the cyclical flow of discovery and application. As applied researchers, if we continue to pull from past insights without creating the impetus for discovery, we won’t have the insights to sow future progress. Without an evolution of insight Ireland’s potential for sustained impact is reduced, particularly as other nations continue to balance and nurture the two fields of research. However, there is an alternative to this basic: applied research debate. When calculating impact, science should be viewed as a cycle that moves from discovery to application and back again bringing with it insights from the field. If we work together, discovery will lead to tangible returns, with a little patience to give the impact time to grow.