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

Dr Felicity Kelliher

Posted: 8 November, 2017

Dr Felicity Kelliher is a member of the Board of the Irish Research Council and a Senior Lecturer in Management and co-chair of the RIKON research group at Waterford Institute of Technology.

Applied research seeks to answer a question or solve a problem in the ‘real world’. In contrast, basic research is often fueled by curiosity that fills in the knowledge we don’t have; it seeks insights that aren’t always directly applicable or immediately useful, and there may not be an obvious commercial value to the discoveries that result. There has been an ongoing and often competitive debate about the divide between these two forms of research, an approach that may ultimately stifle discovery. George Smoot distills this point, ‘If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears’.

Rather than seeing these two forms of research as separate entities, it may be helpful to see them as a cyclical process as each feeds off the other. Taking this view, basic research lays down the foundation for the applied science that follows and applied research can often trigger the curiosity that propels a new idea. It is this curiosity that created many of the household items that we take for granted today; the value of saccharin as an artificial sweetener was discovered because a scientist did not fully clean his hands before eating.

Using the analogy of growing crops, consider the ebbs and flow of the sow and reap cycle. If basic research is the seed, then the applied researcher is the farmer who nurtures the crop. None of us expect crops to occur without having the seeds and planting them. We know it takes time for the crop to grow. We also accept that not all seeds germinate and that some crops fail. Unexpected outside forces such as weather, disease or blight are also a risk and the farmer’s experience can alleviate these challenges. This knowledge can then be fed back to the seed producer. Finally, while a plant can produce ‘new’ seeds, these too may vary showing natural evolution based on the environment in which they are grown.


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.