12 January 2012

Does Basic Research Drive out Applied?

In the seminal 1945 report on science policy, Science -- The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush expressed a view of the relationship of basic and applied research in the federal government:
. . . under pressure for immediate results, and unless deliberate policies are set up to guard against it, applied science invariably drives out pure.
Writing in last week's Nature, Dan Sarewitz wonders if this relationship has now been reversed based on recent budget numbers:
[O]ver the past 15 years, mission agencies such as the USGS that seek principally to serve public goals rather than to advance science have experienced minimal budgetary growth, in some cases not even keeping up with inflation. Since 1996, research funds at the USGS have risen by a mere 16%; at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 11%; the Environmental Protection Agency, 33%; the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), 38%; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45%. Even Department of Defense research has grown relatively modestly, by 60% in 15 years.

Yet, over this same period, government funding for research doubled. Most of the increase went to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NIH's budget has tripled; the NSF's more than doubled. Together, they captured three-quarters of all the spending increases for federal science. (Although the NIH is in some respects a mission agency, its priorities, its work force and the image it has cultivated focus on fundamental science, a reality acknowledged in director Francis Collins's efforts to create an institute to translate research into useful technology).
Sarewitz explains that it is in the self-interests of the scientific community to support blue-sky research at the expense of that conducted by the mission agencies:
One important reason may be that the leading public voices speaking on behalf of research funding come mostly from the high-prestige frontiers of science, and from the institutions associated with such research — universities, the National Academies, the professional scientific societies, and so on.

Last November, for example, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called for “rethinking the science system” to make the funding of university researchers more efficient (A. I. Leshner Science 334, 738; 2011). This is a worthy goal, but nowhere in his editorial, or in the many similar examples of hand-wringing, is it acknowledged that the main goal of rethinking science should be to ensure that the scientific enterprise continues to meet existing and future challenges to public well-being, not simply to protect science for its own sake.

Defending science for its own sake disproportionately benefits the fundamental-science agencies, which can claim to be doing the most prestigious and therefore the most apparently worthwhile science. In the face of the new budgetary reality, advocacy for science must take a new, strategic approach — one that insists on balance between the fundamental-science agencies and the mission agencies that link science to the public good. Otherwise, the value of the public investment in science will decline right along with the budget.
So-called "basic research" is important, but so too is research conducted by mission agencies. Nowadays it seems that basic drives out the applied.


  1. Lew Branscomb has written that when he was the head of JILA, when he was the chair of the National Science Board, and when he was chief scientist at IBM, he consistently found the distinction between basic and applied research to be somewhere between useless and meaningless. He preferred to categorize research as "used" and "unused." (See, "Physics: Used and Unused," in "Confessions of a Technophile").

    "The words 'basic' and 'applied' were barely used by research managers, simply because the distinction served no evident purpose in IBM. We were after high-quality high-value research. We tried to exploit every advantage we found; we were patient in building a knowledge base on which to build the future."

    And later: "we have pretended ... that there are two kinds of physics, basic and applied. I believe this characterization is counterproductive; we have tried to map the concerns of policy-makers who provide funding for research projects onto a fallacious description of the research itself."

  2. -1-Jonathan Gilligan

    I agree! ;-)

    Pielke, Jr., R. A. and R. Byerly (1998), Beyond basic and applied. Physics Today 51 (2) 42-46.

    A new paper coming soon on this as well, stay tuned ... Thanks!

  3. Good to see that the analysis will be "enhanced." Credit where credit is due, Roger.

    An additional interesting aspect: Given that NOAA has responded, how will it affect conspiracy theorists who use this type of error to support their AGW-cabal theories?

    Here's a nice example:


    Stan said...

    Roger, it has nothing to do with science of climate change (or even climate change). But it has everything to do with the methodology and ethics of some of the people who are big cheerleaders for the CAGW narrative regarding an argument that they try to use to push that narrative.



  4. Roger,
    The distinction between basic and applied suggests that the latter is parasitic on the former and that you should always keep basic research for its own sake (because it has beneficial consequences).

    But you also agree with the critique which calls into question the very distinction and shift the distinction from basic/applied to fundamental/mission oriented when you say we need a "new, strategic approach — one that insists on balance between the fundamental-science agencies and the mission agencies that link science to the public good."
    But isn't this just saying the same?

    More importantly: what is a right balance between the two?

    It appears that such distinctions were introduced for accounting reasons yet may have little intellectual merit (see the work of Godin http://www.csiic.ca/PDF/Godin_30.pdf)

  5. Of course, NIH is a mission agency, perhaps more so than the mission agencies you cite. In fact, over the last 15 years it has become far more mission oriented, and supports far less basic research. It started when it declared, over a decade ago, that it would no longer support photosynthesis research (which, I admit, was a stretch for NIH at the best of times). But since then, it's been increasingly hard to get NIH to fund fundamental biophysical studies, and cobbling together of link between the proposed research and 'disease states' needs to be far more convincing than it used to be.

    NSF, likewise, has increasingly been preoccupied with all sorts of mission-oriented research, be it nanotechnology or energy science or social engineering, at the cost of funding fundamental studies. Unless one is at Harvard these days, asking for funding to measure something fundamental, without making some sort of claim that one will solve some social/technological problem, is a certain route to failure.

  6. The DoD research spending has clearly fallen, but NSF spending doesn't really look disproportionate.

    The one major outlier is NIH - clearly there was a fundamental shift in spending in 1997.

    The data would be more useful on a year on year percentage change; these aggregate graphs are highly misleading to the eye.

  7. Sorry for #3 being posted in the wrong thread.

  8. As others have suggested the distinction seems to be in the eye of the beholder or whomsoever was not funded.
    Funny I was just looking at US Government R&D spending numbers after skimming Shawn Otto's ironically titled "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America". From the funding level perspective my reaction is "where's the beef?"