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Margin Notes

The basic vs. applied research debate

What percentage of funding should be directed to basic research? Seventy percent? More? Less?


The eternal debate over basic vs. applied research has been getting some renewed attention in Canada lately. University of Calgary President Harvey Weingarten wrote recently in an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail that Canada has not reached the right balance between “curiosity-driven” and targeted research, saying the country “has no choice but to target more research funding to national priorities.”

He added that the identification of a set of Canadian research priorities in the federal government’s S&T strategy “was a critical step to move our country’s R&D system in the right direction.”

Just days earlier in the same newspaper, University of Toronto’s Nobel Prize winner John Polanyi defended with equal passion the importance of fundamental research. The kicker: “It is an abiding mystery why, having failed so definitively to pick winners in the marketplace for goods, governments have been empowered to pick winners in the far more subtle marketplace for ideas.”

The recent report by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council was somewhat agnostic on the basic vs. applied debate. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, the chair of the council, Howard Alper, did suggest – during the press conference to unveil the report – that an appropriate balance for funding is 70 percent allocated to “fundamental research based on excellence” and 30 percent targeted to research priorities.

I am intrigued by this, as I have never heard anyone suggest before what the basic-to-applied ratio for research should be. Is this 70:30 ratio a commonly agreed-upon metric within the scientific community? Dr. Alper did not indicate whether Canada was at or near this ratio.

Of course, the problem in this debate is how one defines and measures basic vs. applied research. Many in the scientific community talk about “targeted” research, but that is not necessarily the same as “applied” research, although neither should be confused with the sort of “blue-sky, wherever-it-takes-me” type of research that we generally refer to as “fundamental,” “basic” or “curiosity-driven.”

(Interestingly, a 2001 paper by Benoit Godin of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique notes that Canada did keep statistics on basic or “pure” research starting in the 1960s, but the attempt was abandoned by the late ’70s.)

What’s your take? Is the 70:30 ratio appropriate? Take a moment to answer our poll, below. And how should we go about defining basic vs. applied research?

[poll id=”3″]

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / May 11, 2009 at 11:43

    “targetted” does not map well onto the basic v. applied debate at all. Because much of the targetted money is going to basic research with no immediate applications. It is just going to basic research in specific fields.

    Similarly, many of the funding programs for curiosity driven research (NSERC Discovery Grants, SSHRC Standard Research Grants, etc) fund applied research because there are a lot of researchers out there who are curious about applied questions.

    I think the “picking winners” point is the most appropriate. We don’t really know what knowledge we are going to need in the future, nor where it is going to come from.

  2. Nicole Wyatt / May 11, 2009 at 14:06

    I don’t worry about the basic/applied research distinction very much, especially since it is rather a matter of perspective. After all, from where I sit, all of linguistics is just applied philosophy of language ;).

    What concerns me is targeted research funding, since I think we are very bad at knowing what we are going to need to know. I would like to see no more than 30% of the research dollars be targeted.

  3. J Reichert / May 13, 2009 at 12:36

    Compartmentalization of research into basic vs applied research categories is a gross oversimplification of the situation; the arguments pro and con or the debate over “What is the right balance?” are equally simplistic. A more sophisticated widening of the definition for research has emerged that reflects an appreciation for the continuum of research activities and includes recognition of quantitative as well as qualitative and practice-based methodologies. There is also increasing appreciation for interdisciplinary research that can embrace several research methodologies and often includes professional and creative practice. Presently research funding in Canada still reflects the traditional university and government funding agency biases towards discipline-based quantitative scientific investigation and discovery. But the widening definitions of research to include problem solving, creative practice, policy and pedagogical studies and so on, plus the recognition that a “mosaic” of talents including vocational skills are relevant to research, are fuelling a favourable trend. This trend should lead to a more strategic and comprehensive approach to research support in Canada.

  4. Kaises / April 12, 2014 at 14:13

    I think applied is more important because it is not enough to know about something, we should apply our knowledge to discover mistakes and get more efficient results. Just like a chemistry equation

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