Yes, but what do you mean by basic research?

16 Feb 2006 | News | Update from University of Warwick
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An academic finds that basic research comes in various shades of purity, and that scientists can change their use of the term in mid sentence.

You have to admire academics for their ability to play the system. Tell them that you will favour grant proposals with "industry relevance" and they will oblige. But ask them if their research could be of some benefit to a business and they will demur on the grounds that it is "pure research". There's a nice account of this ducking and weaving in a paper by Dr Jane Calvert of the University of Exeter in the journal Science, Technology, & Human Values (vol. 31, no. 2, March 2006 pp 199-220).
Dr Calvert, now in the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society at Exeter, talked to 49 researchers and policy makers in the USA and the UK for her paper "What’s Special about Basic Research?" Turns out that they have lots of definitions of what they mean by "basic research". Her take on the term is that it has "a flexible repertoire of characteristics that can be drawn on selectively by scientists and policy makers in a variety of contexts to protect their interests and their scientific ideals."
The paper describes "six major ways of distinguishing basic research". She goes on to say that "scientists can use the term to protect themselves from evaluation and demands for applicability and in this way use it to protect their interests". Then there is her point that "scientists can tailor their work to make it appear more applied and that they can do this because of the flexibility provided by the broad repertoire of features comprising 'basic research'."
The 49 people she quizzed, about half from each side of the "divide," and covering a range of scientific disciplines, gave her some nice soundbites. There's the biologist in the USA who said: “If you don’t know what you are going to do with the information then it’s basic research.” 
The people she talked to also changed their tune during her interviews. "One interviewee would often define 'basic research' in one way but then use it in another in the course of the interview, showing that different definitions were often found within an individual."
Another nice quote: “If I’m talking to someone who’s from a commercial concern I will very quickly in the conversation use the term 'basic'. Just because I just want to make it clear to them that I don’t foresee I’m going to have something patentable or anything else during some reasonable time span of my grant.”
Dr Calvert tells us that she didn't really look into industry's take on pure research, but the paper has one or two observations on the subject, which is why we bring it up here.
"The most commonly used justification [for basic research] was the public good argument: that industry would not invest in basic research because they would not be able to capture the returns. It was pointed out that if industry did fund basic research, then the information would not be freely available and this would not be optimal for society."
Our theory, perhaps we have already bored you with it, is that  once upon a time, in the bad old days before the 1980s, companies did indeed do pure research. They even let their scientists publish pretty freely, something that Dr Calvert's interviewees don't seem to recall. (She doesn't tell us how old they were.) But these days the corporate horizon is so near that a business scientists is pushing their luck when trying to do some research that looks more than a couple of years ahead.
One consequence of this is that businesses now expect academics to be the source of basic research.
But back to the paper, policy makers, it seems, are also capable of changing how they describe research. Research on nuclear fusion, for example, was shifted out of the 'applied' pigeon hole into 'pure'. That's because the people doing the classifying realised that there wouldn't be much in the way of a power station for a log long time, so they thought it best to classify the research as basic.
“If a program is evaluated as applied research," a policy person told Dr Calvert, "it’s going to get evaluated on the basis of how soon they achieve the goal of making things practical, so by making it basic they can perhaps defer the evaluation somewhat.” So call fusion basic and the politicians stop breathing down you neck.
It turns out, then, "an apparently ambiguous and unsatisfactory term actually becomes useful in practice". Indeed, the term 'basic research' is so valuable and adaptable that when Dr Calvert had the temerity to suggest finding an alternative the response was distinctly cool. "Policy makers do not see pressures for applicability in the current funding climate as fundamentally changing the nature of basic research, and they do not think it is necessary to change the way we describe it."

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