benefits of basic research

In this wiki, we are going to explore the meanings of basic research and its significance from the view of public, private companies and governments. And we will discuss the benefits of basic research with examples. Finally we conclude that basic research is a long-term investment.

The cartoon above although not offering an academic definition of basic research, it does provide an interesting insight into some of the most widespread perceptions about the characteristics of basic research. Fist, it highlights the undetermined and unpredictable outcomes of basic research. Second, it establishes a close link between basic research and serendipity. Third, it indicates that the benefits of basic research are in fact established and "discovered" a posteriori. Finally, as the evolution from rubbing sticks to the bonfire suggests, basic research implies some sort of improvement with regard to a previous situation.

In fact, the literature reviewed shows that there is no one clear idea about what basic research is, but that they draw on many different features when describing the term. Here there are some definitions according to different characteristics of basic research:

  • CURIOSITY-RESEARCH DRIVEN: "Basic research is a experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any
    particular application or use in view" (Francati Manual).
  • UNPREDICTABILITY: "Basic research is what I am doing when I don't know what I am doing" (Wernher von Braun).
  • PUBLIC RESEARCH - BUSINESS RESEARCH: 'Academic research is mainly basic research; business research is mainly the development and testing of prototypes and pilot plants. Academic institutions dominate in
    the publication of scientific papers, and business firms in the granting of patents. And despite examples of spectacularly close links between basic research and technology (i.e. biotechnology), basic research builds mainly on
    basic research (scientific papers cite other scientific papers much more frequently than patents) and technology builds mainly on technology (e.g., patents cite other patents much more frequently than scientific papers)'
    (Pavitt: 1998b, p. 795).
  • BASIC RESEARCH vs. APPLIED RESEARCH: 'Basic research' is taken to include both 'curiosity-oriented' research (experimental or theoretical research undertaken primarily to acquire new scientific or technical
    knowledge for its own sake) and 'strategic' research (undertaken with some instrumental application in mind, although the precise process or product is not yet known). (SPRU REVIEW, 1996: 11).

Video: Basic Versus Applied Research: A Challenge for dg.o

Basic research could easily be linked to the theory of simple linear model of innovation. As this graphic suggests, this model postulates that innovation starts with basic research, followed by applied research and development and ends with production and diffusion:

(Where does this chart come from? Should we list it in the references?)

However, we consider that basic research is just one of many inputs to technology. Innovation and new technologies or innovations can, in turn, again have an impact on basic research. (Shall we mention this? Because we haven't discussed anything about the impact of technology on basic research, I suggest not mention this sentence.)

Fields of Basic Research

Figure 3 Ronald L. Meeks

What are the benefits of basic research?

Public Good

Some benefits of basic research may benefit society at large but provide little or no preferential gains to those who make the investment. That being the case, there is inadequate incentive for private companies to make such investments. Therefore, because of the inability of firms to capture all the benefits from basic research, firms tend to under-invest in basic research. To compensate for this, governments needs to fund basic research.

For example, the discovery of the transistor, among other things, was responsible for the eventual development of the current telecommunication systems. But even with the benefit of hindsight, according to R. Nelson (1962), the transistor would not have been a good private investment. And therefore, left to itself - a competitive market will invest less than the optimum in basic research.

In 1969, a network called ARPANET was developed by ARPA - Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is a basic research funded by the U.S. Department of Defence, with the purpose of building robust, fault-tolerant and distributed computer networks for military use. In 1980s, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) started to build NSFNET to support research and education in national-scale. NSFnet is commercialized in the 1990s and gradually developed into the internet which was used by estimated quarter of Earth's population today.

Economic growth

As Dr. David N. Schramm from University of Chicago argues, "Funding basic research in science and technology is an investment in the future." "Cutting funding for basic research is like burning the seed corn." From the development of the U.S, we can clearly see the importance of basic research in a nation's economic growth and development. Every year hundreds of thousands of talented people from developing countries go to U.S to do basic research, driven by sufficient fund in the fields such as physics and life science. A large portion of them stay in America and contribute to the national development.

Technological innovation

Basic Research provides organizations with a lot of learning experience, which could lead to the development of unexpected applications. The figure below shows the development of MP3 technology, which illustrates the unexpected benefits of basic research. In 1965, research funded by the Department of Defence, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology contributed to the breakthrough technologies of magnetic storage drives, lithium-ion batteries, and the liquid crystal display, which came together in the development of MP3 devices.

Figure 4 American Competitiveness Initiative

Human well-being

Investments in basic research have led to countless major contributions to society, have improved the standard of living, and enhanced our way of life. One particular example is NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance)a tool invented by chemists to determine the structure of chemicals, was developed into MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)a machine that produces pictures of the bone and internal tissues of the body without the use of radioactivity. Another example is the discovery of DNA, which leads to various medical resolutions including cancer treatments.

Figure 5

Knowledge- advance

Basic research in advanced scientific computing led to the development of computational software packages - now standards in the high-performance computer industry worldwide - that enable scientists to make effective use of networks of workstations and massively parallel computers. Parallel computing is used in a wide range of fields, from bioinformatics (to do protein folding) to economics (to do simulation in mathematical finance).

Research skills

Substantial proportion of the wider economic benefits to society from publicly-funded basic research is associated with scientists' research skills and their possible migration into the commercial sector or industry. The research of Irvine and Martin shows that Masters and Doctoral graduates from British radio-astronomy benefited in subsequent non-academic careers from the research skillsrather than research knowledge.

Example ????? Sorry I can't find an example for this, instead I found a literature.

Unplanned applications: (I think this point kind of overlaps with the technology innovation, what do you think?)

Useful knowledge emerges from basic research undertaken purely out of curiosity, without any strategic mission or expectation of application. The emergence of the electronic mail follows this pattern. Its appearance and success was unforeseen for most of the ARPANET designers - the network that preceded the Internet- as they conceived the network merely as tool to share computing resources among geographically distributed research sites, and they did not imagine that people would use the network to share experiences and interests.

However, what a more unexpected development that the history of the Internet: a network that was originally designed to survive nuclear attack evolved into a citizens' network!

Are these benefits so straightforward?

Although there are many benefits as discussed above, basic research is not an immediate panacea. The debate on whether government should spend huge amount of money on studying the space while lots of people are suffering from poverty and hunger is going on all the time. As Rosenberg (1989) argues, basic research, in order to be successful, requires the making of stable, long-term commitments. Therefore we should look at this issue in a long term perspective and tolerant the possible failures of basic researches.

Video:Reinvesting in basic research


  • R. Nelson, The Link between Science and Invention: the Case of the Transistor, in: R. Nelson (ed.), The Rate and Direction of Inventme Actiuity (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1962).
  • N Rosenberg, Why do Firms do Basic Research (with Their Own Money)? , Research Policy (1990)
  • K.Pavitt, What makes basic research economically useful? , Research Policy (1990)
  • A.J. Salter, B.R. Martin, The economic benefits of publicly funded basic research: a critical review, Research Policy (2000)
  • R.L. Meeks Federal Funding Supports Moderate Growth for Basic Research in the 1990's , National Science Foundation (1998)
  • Committee to Update Science, Medicine, and Animals; National Research Council (2004) Science, Medicine, and Animals ,Pg.20
  • The white house American Competitiveness Initiative [Online]. (Accessed 18 Feb 2010)
  • D. N. Schramm, Basic Research: Investing in America's Economic Future, October 16, 1995, American Youth Policy Forum [Online] (Accessed 18 Feb 2010)
  • Basic Research: The Seed Corn for Economic Growth and Improved Quality of Life [Online] (Accessed 18 Feb 2010)

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