The Benefits of Combining Applied and Basic Research

This book excerpt provides perspective on how to think innovatively and discover new ideas

4 February 2016

This is an edited excerpt from my new book, The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, which will be published this month by Oxford University Press.

Thomas Jefferson’s masterful mission statement to famed explorer and American soldier Meriwether Lewis was a brilliant example of combining an applied research goal with basic research questions. America’s founding father, its third president, wrote that the “object of your mission is to explore” and find “the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purpose of commerce.”

Jefferson stipulated that Lewis make geographic, geological, astronomical, biological, meteorological, and other observations to add to basic natural science knowledge during his journey. He also detailed the social science research agenda for encounters with American Indian nations, requiring Lewis to record the languages, traditions, laws, customs, and religion. Jefferson’s eagerness to learn about the tribes extended to their agricultural, hunting, and fishing practices. He believed there was much to learn from how the American Indian nations made clothing, built housing, and treated disease.

Lewis and his close friend and second lieutenant, William Clark, set out on what became known as the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1804 to 1806. It was a remarkable human drama of how the 33-member Corps of Discovery, a specialized unit of the U.S. Army, paddled and portaged up the Missouri River, crossed treacherous and snow-covered trails through the Rocky Mountains, traveled down the Columbia River to the Pacific, and then returned safely, having achieved many of the goals set for them.

They were aided by the young Shoshone American Indian woman, Sacajawea, who accompanied them with her baby while acting as an interpreter and liaison with indigenous tribes. Their teamwork triumph, later tarnished by tragic encounters with American Indian tribes, helped expand commerce while advancing research, thereby creating a national sensation.

More than a century and a half later, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, dealing with Cold War political realities, challenged NASA “to go to the moon in this decade” by engaging in “the greatest and most complex exploration in man’s history.” Kennedy focused on how “the growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

While Kennedy expected research contributions, he was well aware of the international excitement and broad growth of interest in science, engineering, and design that the moon landing would produce. What is striking about Jefferson’s and Kennedy’s challenges is how they instinctively tied applied research goals to basic research pursuits, with the expectation that this combination would have high payoffs in business while stimulating further efforts in science, engineering, and design. These visionary leaders believed that challenging applications and basic research went well together, stimulating progress toward both goals.

However, these presidents’ beliefs in synergistic interaction between applied and basic research are not universally held. There are strong voices from those who believe that curiosity-driven basic research deserves special support, free of linkage to mission-driven applied research. This suggestion of the primacy of basic research has shaped research policy, government funding, educational programs, and more.

Similarly, some applied researchers are content to solve their specific problems without thinking about the theories that could lead to universal principles with widespread adoption.

While there are clear differences between the methods of applied and basic research, the ABC Principle (Applied and Basic Combined) is based on the belief that projects that pursue both applied and basic goals have a higher chance of producing more dramatic advances in both arenas. The ABC Principle is aligned with the growing ambitions of researchers and the increased appreciation for innovations that address contemporary problems. The case studies in this book show diverse approaches that provide inspirational templates for combining applied and basic research.

While challenges such as going to the moon or building the first atomic bomb required massive teamwork (in the form of Project Apollo and the Manhattan Project, respectively), many smaller contemporary research projects could be improved by combining diverse researchers in large teams. In some communities there is a growing appreciation for teamwork, and improved collaboration tools are boosting the capabilities of research teams. These larger teams are more likely to take on more ambitious projects than smaller teams are, pursuing applied and basic tasks simultaneously.

This increased ambition does not always make for an easy path. Setbacks and failures will still be the common experience for researchers, but effective processes can produce resilient teams. In spite of the difficulties, the evidence is growing that larger teams are likely to produce higher-impact results than smaller teams.

Do you have questions for me about the ABC Principle? Submit them in the comments section below.

Ben Shneiderman is an IEEE Fellow and a distinguished university professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, in College Park. He is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the author of the forthcoming book: The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations (Oxford University Press, February 2016).

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