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Basic Versus Applied

by Rudy M. Baum
December 13, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 50

The debate over the relative value of basic versus applied research has played out in the pages of C&EN for decades.

The lead paragraph of a “Research” department story in the Nov. 11, 1957, issue of C&EN, entitled “Needed—More Basic Research,” reads: “Support for basic research is increasing steadily. But the increase is not enough to keep pace with the nation’s needs. The United States supports more basic research than any other single country, yet the potential of its scientists exceeds the support available by a considerable amount.”

Then, as now, we were concerned about the research prowess of another nation. “From the national security angle the significance Russia attaches to basic research lends added urgency to attaining our objectives, says NSF. In Russia, some 24,000 scientists, about 14% of Soviet scientific manpower, devote their time to basic research. This figure is somewhere between one fifth and one third higher than the number of scientists doing basic research in the U.S. Warns NSF, ‘We must remain aware of the large untapped reservoir of manpower in the Soviet Union and the availability of ample funds for the support of future scientists.’ ”

And the balance between basic and applied research was a focus of concern. “Colleges and universities conduct a large part of our basic research and train nearly all our scientists, says NSF. Faced with rising costs and lower income, many institutions have turned to government research contracts as a source of support. However, says NSF, most government contracts are for applied and developmental research. This could lead to a shift from one of the primary functions of an educational institution—doing basic research.”

Sound familiar?

The March 28, 1977, Editor’s Page of C&EN printed excerpts from a speech given by Max Tishler, by then an emeritus chemistry professor at Wesleyan University. “Basic research is the endless frontier and from it comes the spark to fire technology. It has lost much of its place in the scheme of things and this is largely because we have never really made the point with the public, Congress, and the executive branch of government of how it fuels the advancement of technology. … [M]ore than ever we need new concepts and new knowledge to meet the constraints that have risen out of man’s indiscriminate consumption of the earth’s energy and material resources. While success in our national welfare will only come from major emphasis of both basic research and technology, overemphasis on the practical could kill science and give us useless technology.”

The debate continues in this week’s issue in a “Point/Counterpoint” feature of dueling guest editorials on the proper emphasis of research in U.S. universities (see page 26).

I have written and talked for many years about a characteristic of chemistry that distinguishes it from other basic sciences: It is both a core discipline and an enabling science that is the toolbox that drives advances in many other disciplines.

Basic, curiosity-driven research in the core discipline of chemistry in the 20th century led to extraordinary advances in understanding the properties of matter and the ability to manipulate it for human purposes. It also created the enabling science that changed, for example, biology from a qualitative discipline into a quantitative, molecular discipline.

Basic research remains essential for advancing the core discipline of chemistry. The periodic table of the elements is vast, and much of it remains relatively unexplored. There are many chemical reactions that we don’t know how to carry out or don’t know how to carry out very well. There are natural products to be discovered, characterized, and synthesized. There is much to learn about the chemistry of life.

That said, I have the feeling that the second half of the 20th century was the golden age for unfettered basic research in chemistry and other sciences. Humanity faces many critical challenges that must be addressed through focused, results-driven research. Budgets will be constrained for years to come. For better or worse, citizens and their legislators will be more generous to the enabling science than to the core discipline.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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