A few years back, a government science agency did a poll to try to understand the public’s perceptions of the work they funded. One of the biggest surprises was how people felt about public funding for “basic research.” Most people felt the government should not be spending tax money on basic research at all. Instead, those funds should go into advanced research.
This was something of a punchline for the official who told my colleagues and me about the poll during a talk he gave at the University of Rochester. The results showed a clear gap between what scientists mean by basic research, and what almost everyone else thinks it means. Given how important basic research is to science, it is worth taking a moment to consider what the term really means, and which activities it describes.
Einstein the “basic” physicist
For scientists, basic research really means fundamental research. But to understand its meaning even better, we need to contrast the idea of “basic” with that of “applied.” There is no immediate application for the fruits of basic research. They will not immediately become a gizmo in your next car or a molecule in your next medicine. Instead, the point of basic research is something far less tangible: pure understanding. That is why we call it fundamental. The goal is to understand some aspect of a subject at its most essential level.
The history of scientific research is full of helpful examples. In 1905, for instance, Albert Einstein published his epoch-making paper on the theory of special relativity, which focused on the most basic concepts physics uses to understand everything: matter, motion, and energy. The versions of those concepts that still prevailed at that time had been developed a few hundred years earlier by Isaac Newton. But Einstein saw how limited were Newton’s descriptions of these fundamental players in physics. The relationships Newtonian physics described between, say, energy and motion (i.e., velocity) did not tell the whole story. Einstein developed a more basic, more fundamental understanding of such relationships, and in the process, he gave physics new equations like E = mc2.
When Einstein was working on this paper, he was not thinking about how these formulas would be applied to any particular industry, or to the medical field. He was no doubt aware that his ideas would find such applications. They were too important not to become the foundation for new machines and new techniques that would affect everyday life. But applications were just not what he was doing or why he was doing it.
Basic research is basically the key
Einstein’s basic research changed the world forever. I could easily make a list as long as your arm of the actual downstream applications from that 1905 paper. It would include everything from radiation therapy to hyper-accurate GPS satellites.
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This example shows that basic research is, indeed, very advanced. In fact, it is the most advanced of all the kinds of research out there, because it pushes at the frontiers of knowledge. In today’s world, such basic research takes many forms. In cosmology, it is about understanding the first few instants after the big bang. In planetary science, it is about understanding how the core of a world forms and leads to protective magnetic fields. In biology, it is about understanding how life uses information to carry out its most basic tasks. In cognitive science, it is about understanding how the brain sorts its many inputs into what is relevant and what is not.
The most important point about basic research is that it is almost always the key to cutting-edge applied research — the kind that generates jobs and wealth, and adds to a nation’s GDP. A robust national scientific infrastructure — with a healthy dose of basic research funding — is the engine that changes the world. The laser came from basic research. The internet came from basic research. The mRNA vaccines that tamed COVID came from basic research. All of the specific applied research that led to the zillions of technological marvels we encounter every day began with someone asking a very basic question, applied to nothing. Just as important, the knowledge and technologies that will usher in the future of energy and help balance the Earth’s climate will also have their roots in someone asking basic, fundamental questions.
The most basic research is the most advanced. That’s your science zen koan for today.