Toward an Ecological Model of Research and Development

The choice between basic and applied research is a false one.

The belief that basic or pure research lays the foundation for applied research was fixed in science policy circles by Vannevar Bush's 1945 report on Science: The Endless Frontier. Unfortunately, his unsubstantiated beliefs have remained attractive to powerful advocates of basic research who seek funding for projects that may or may not advance innovation and economic growth. Shifting the policy agenda to recognize that applied research goals often trigger more effective basic research could accelerate both applied and basic research.

Close integration of applied and basic research was clear in Thomas Jefferson's masterful mission statement to Merriwether Lewis. The "object of your mission is to explore" and find "the most direct & practicable water communication across the continent, for the purpose of commerce." At the same time, Jefferson stipulated that Lewis make geographic, geological, astronomical, biological, meteorological, and other observations to add to basic natural science knowledge. Jefferson also detailed the social science research agenda for encounters with Indian nations, requiring Lewis to record their languages, traditions, laws, customs, and religion. Jefferson's eagerness to learn about the tribes extended to their agricultural practices, plus hunting and fishing implements. He believed that there was much to learn from how the Indian nations made their clothing, built their housing, and treated their diseases.

The Lewis & Clark expedition (1804-1806) was a remarkable success for achieving many of the goals set for them. Their triumph helped expand commerce while advancing research, thereby creating a national sensation.

More than a century and a half later, John Kennedy pledged "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."

What is striking about both Jefferson's and Kennedy's challenges is how they both tied applied research goals to basic scientific pursuits, with the expectation that this combination would also have high payoffs in commerce, while stimulating further efforts in science and engineering. These visionary leaders believed that challenging applications and basic science went well together, stimulating progress toward both goals.

However, these Presidential beliefs in synergistic interaction between basic and applied research are not universal. For the past 70 years there have been strong advocates who believed that basic research precedes applied research. This suggestion of the primacy of basic research has shaped research policy, government funding, educational programs, and more. While there are clear differences between the methods of basic and applied research, an ecological model that promotes stronger interdependence may lead to more rapid advances in both arenas.

Vannevar Bush's Linear Model

Promoting basic research and broad application of innovative technologies have sometimes been seen as separate, or connected by the "linear model" in which basic research leads to applied research, then commercial development, and finally production and operation (Figure 1). The linear model gives precedence to basic research, seeing it as the forerunner of applied research.

Figure 1: Linear Model: Simple but incorrect, misleading model that rarely works.

The linear model was given strong support by Vannevar Bush, who as President Roosevelt's science advisor and head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development wrote the influential 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier. He described basic research as "pure research" and argued that "Pure research is research without specific practical ends," which often results in surprising outcomes: "Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with quite different purposes in mind." Bush aligned himself with those who described brilliant pure or basic science researchers, who spawned breakthrough ideas, made clever innovations, and spotted fresh patterns. Of course, sometimes the value of a basic research effort might take decades to be appreciated and applied, but advocates of basic research are confident in the payoffs from such investments.

He thought university researchers needed special protection from administrative interference, confidently promising that "statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the work undertaken; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy."

Bush described applied research in a positive way, writing that "applied research and development differs in several important respects from pure science. Since the objective can often be definitely mapped out beforehand, the work lends itself to organized effort. If successful, the results of applied research are of a definitely practical or commercial value." It is ironic that Bush saw little possibility that applied research could stimulate pure or basic research. The irony is striking since his book is filled with examples of how war-time needs, especially in medicine produced remarkable basic research payoffs. Of course the most compelling example from Bush's own experience is the Manhattan Project, in which the practical goal of building an atomic bomb invigorated basic research in physics, materials engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and many other fields.

The irony is not only that Bush emphasized the flow from basic to applied research, but he also sternly warned that "applied research invariably drives out pure." This disturbing statement, so at odds with much of the historical evidence, seems even more troubling to contemporary readers.

The linear model, which assumes that basic research precedes applied research, is widely accepted, especially by basic science researchers who want funding with few restrictions and no promises of productive outcomes. The rare Einstein, Curie, or Hawking may have earned the expectation of unrestricted funding, but for the vast population of modern researchers this expectation is inappropriate.

New Views of the Relationship between Basic and Applied Research

Critics of Bush's views cited the many cases of scientific progress that were stimulated by applied problems. They suggest that the path to commercial success is not to promote technology transfer from universities to industry, but to get industry to set the research agenda based on problems that they face. This "reverse linear model" often generates an appropriate solution to the problem as well as substantive advance in basic research (Figure 2). The reverse linear model, achieved by closely situating applied and basic researchers was a central theme at Bell Labs, as described in John Gernter's bestseller, The Idea Factory (2012).

Figure 2: Reverse Linear Model: Listen to industry problems and solve them collaboratively, thereby substantially reducing technology transfer problems.

Donald Stokes (Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation, 1997) stresses work that is motivated by both considerations for use and fundamental understanding. His favorite example of "use-inspired basic research" is Louis Pasteur's repeated success in working on genuine problems such as the spoilage of milk and failures of wine fermentation, to produce basic science breakthroughs about bacterial processes and vaccines.

Stokes comments liberally about the influence of Bush's linear model, then gently but firmly criticizes it "since it obscures as well as reveals." Stokes sees Bush as "too narrow" in assessing the inspirations for basic science and the "actual sources of technological innovation."

Stokes, and many other analysts provide a rigorous foundation for those who see value in the combined pursuit of basic and applied research, who believe that practical and theoretical work fit together well, and that mission-driven and curiosity-driven research invigorate each other. While Stokes advocates "use-inspired basic research", this author adds "theory-inspired applied research." In short, I am raising the expectations for researchers or all kinds; I want them to combine basic with applied research, since the broader foundation of theory and practice will be a more potent stimulus for their work. The outcomes of such work should enrich basic knowledge and accelerate technology innovation.

An Ecological Model of Research and Development

Of course some basic research will lead only to novel or refined theories, and some applied research will lead only to innovations or refined technologies. However, the highest payoffs often come when there is a healthy interaction of basic and applied research (Figure 3). This ecological model also suggests that basic and applied research are embedded in a rich context of large development projects and continuing efforts to refine production & operations.

Figure 3: Ecological model recognizes the benefits of doing basic and applied research in harmony, while situated in the environment of larger efforts at Development and Production & operations.

The raised expectations of this ecological model are more easily realized today than in Vannevar Bush's day, in part due to the successful realization of Bush's "memex" vision. Ironically, his applied research vision triggered a half century of basic and applied research that emerged as the World Wide Web. The 1945 memex was portrayed as a desk-sized microfilm device that enabled users to read texts and follow links to related references, thereby creating trails of associations that could be preserved for future users. The World Wide Web does even more than memex, since it supports far richer two-way communications and lively social media environments, offering a more potent source of rapidly updated resources, diverse commentaries, and historical archives. It also supports collaboration in grand projects, ranging from Wikipedia's multi-lingual encyclopedias to global citizen science projects in astronomy, medicine, biodiversity, etc.

The World Wide Web offers rapid access scientific papers, government reports, and commercial websites and enables discovery of potential collaborators, such as academic researchers, government agency staffers, and commercial developers. Commercial developers can find academic partners who might help solve their problems or join in research proposals to government agencies. Industry-university partnerships can often be effective, such as the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership that successfully promoted the 2011 National Robotics Initiative.

Ideally, research teams with diverse skills work together to produce dual benefits: publishable research results and focused practical solutions that serve an existing market. By working together on genuine problems basic researchers gain access to smart, motivated professionals who offer new challenges that expand academic disciplines, provide Big Data resources to analyze, and access to natural test beds to evaluate their results. Similarly, commercial developers gain access to savvy basic researchers whose complementary skills and energetic students could spawn potent mathematical models or mind-expanding totally unexpected solutions.

A key payoff of the ecological model is the lower barriers to technology transfer, since commercial developers are involved in problem selection and framing for basic researchers, which has a higher chance of producing implementable solutions for companies.

However, the presence of the World Wide Web is not sufficient to ensure that the ecological model will be employed successfully. Unfortunately many basic researchers avoid commercial developers, who also have reasons to shun basic researchers. Fundamental problems remain, especially over the ownership of intellectual property, need to publish, and sharing payoffs for successes.

The ecological model addresses an important shift in academic research, industrial management, and government policy that is happening in some circles. If individual researchers and organizational decision makers can accelerate this movement there can be remarkable payoffs for their organizations and national economies. Some funding agencies and foundations have come to recognize this path to high impact research, but resistance is strong from traditionalists.

While the President's Council of Advisors for Science and Technology have regularly endorsed ecological models, its November 2012 report on innovation was captured by those who are still devoted to Vannevar Bush's dated linear model. Advancing national goals seems more likely if science policy makers integrate basic and applied research.

The ecological model is also more likely to cope with contemporary problems such as energy sustainability, healthcare delivery, and environmental protection, which requires technology breakthroughs and behavior change among billions of people. The ecological model breaks traditional academic disciplinary boundaries and requires new collaborations, but they can have high payoffs for all.