Balance between basic and applied research

This is the (slightly expanded) text of a speech I gave at the NDRC Long Debate, 25 October 2012.


What is the right balance between basic and applied research for a small island nation?

Basic research is research that is not directed towards any particular application or development. There is an old joke: Basic research is like shooting an arrow into the air and, where it lands, you paint a target.

Applied research is defined by strategic goals set by industrial or political leaders, or driven by market needs.

One can also say that applied research is where a practical application is a number of months away. Basic research is when a practical application is not yet visible.

I first would like to convince you that we should have some basic research. That is, we should not have 100% applied and 0% basic. I think most people would already go along with that, but let me make a few points in favour of basic research.

Funding of basic research is mostly done by funding a PhD student, who is then trained as a researcher.

One important result of funding PhD students is the creation of human and intellectual capital. Building research capacity and generating employees capable of inquiry is important.  We cannot predict what will be the leading technology in 10 years time, but we will need a constant supply of researchers strong in the fundamentals to stay in the game.

It used to be thought that basic research was followed by applications. In other words, a basic discovery was made, such as the invention of the laser, and later on applications were found. Certainly, this happens. Example: the CD.  First the laser was invented, for no reason. Then Philips wanted to make a disc, and someone knew about lasers, and said hey, maybe we could use this thing called a laser?  Then they wanted to correct errors due to scratches. Someone said hey, there’s this maths from the 19th century that can be used to construct these codes.

However we now understand that, very often, basic and applied research progress together, and in fact they feed off each other. For example, an applied cryptographer might design a cipher system that appears secure. The theoretical cryptographer might do an analysis and pinpoint a flaw, and then suggest a correction. The applied cryptographer might point out that then the system is too slow, but suggest another change.  And so on, back and forth, until a final product is reached. Basic and applied research happen together.

There are many examples of basic research discovering something useless, and for it later to find an application. The laser, the structure of DNA, the internet, the transistor, the sex life of the screwworm, are some. A more recent one is graphene, discovered by basic research in 2004, where we still do not know how it will revolutionize the world.

Did you know… Einstein’s theory of relativity is needed to make GPS clocks accurate.

Other arguments:  Basic research can have wider ramifications than targeted applied research. Research aimed at Alzheimers could improve Alzheimers, however a discovery in fundamental drug research could improve several conditions all at the same time.

Basic research is recognized as a longterm generator of innovation.

A preference for applied research favours certain subjects while neglecting others. Subjects like mathematics, and in particular the arts and humanities, become disadvantaged and will suffer.

I could go on, but I hope you accept the case that at least some basic research should be funded by the state.

By the way I am not saying that all basic researchers and scientists should be given funding. I am saying that our excellent scientists should.  It’s important to let scientists decide which science is worthy of being funded, through a peer review process.

Now the next question is, how much of the state-sponsored research should be basic?  And should it be directed?

The international norm seems to be around 50-50 between basic and applied research.

The Irish government funds research through agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council (now just one), the Health Research Board, Teagasc, the Marine Institute.

This year has seen a shift towards funding research in certain areas of science, and funding only research that has `impact’ on the economy.

The Research Prioritisation Steering Group recommended 14 areas that the government should direct research funding towards.  The chair of the RPSG, Jim O’Hara, suggested that about 80% of funding go to these priority areas, with the other 20% going towards more fundamental research (The Irish Times, 2 March 2012).  Interestingly, the RPSG itself could not agree on the percentage, I have been told by a member.

Subsequent to the RPSG recommendations, the new SFI policy is not an 80-20 split but a 100-0 split. This puts all research funding into the priority areas and areas with impact on the economy, and absolutely nothing into research in other areas.

We don’t yet know if the other agencies such as the IRC will put all their money into the new priority areas. If this happens, it is demoralizing for researchers in other areas. This has a knock-on effects in the university environment, where such researchers are also teachers. Many young people are motivated by a great teacher.  Research-informed teaching is a crucial part of our university education. Dropping some subjects will affect future generations.

Another problem is that directing research funding into certain areas is a high-risk strategy. Many Silicon Valley companies are known for not directing the research and just letting it happen. How do you get the most out of really bright people? You put them in a room and say “do what you want. We would prefer if it helps the company.” Google and Microsoft research work this way. Researchers will create, when given the chance. You just don’t know exactly what they will create.

The Economist wrote in 2010 about this strategy of Picking Winners. It is back in fashion among governments around the world, however it mixes science policy with industrial policy. It fails more often than it succeeds, according to the Economist. Other arguments against picking winners (research prioritization) are

– You can’t predict what will be growth areas over the next ten years.
– We lose expertise in the non-priority areas, top people will move to another country, nobody in those areas wants to come here.
– Companies in non-priority areas will not come to Ireland.
– If there is a breakthrough development in a non-priority area, we will not be able to capitalise because we have lost our expertise.
I did some research while preparing for tonight, and I looked at countries of a similar size to Ireland.

Typically the leading countries in science spend about 3% of GDP on R&D. In 2009 in Ireland it was 1.77%.

The Swedish Research Council was founded in 2001, the same year as SFI. They put about 3.6% of GDP into research. In their proposal for 2009-2013 they recommended an increase of 270 million in free basic research, and 200 million in basic research in areas of high priority. (So increasing the split in favour of basic.)

I found a 2007 report from Austria (2.75% of GDP into R&D), with an analysis on the competitiveness of their research. They looked at other countries and said:

“With very few exceptions, all leading scientific nations, in particular smaller ones such as Switzerland (3%), Israel (4.5%), Sweden (3.6%), Denmark (3%), Finland (3.8%) or Holland (1.8%), are world-leading not only overall but also in all individual scientific disciplines.

This provides a strong indication for a wide-ranging effort to attain international quality in all areas of science and argues (also for countries with smaller economies) against too strong a focus on particular disciplines. It appears to be the case that excellence in individual disciplines or fields of research is hardly possible without excellence in most disciplines. The jump to a world-leading position in basic research cannot be attained in a matter of a few years. Many of today’s top nations have invested in the necessary resources, structures and incentives over a period of decades.”

Israel is slightly bigger than Ireland, and puts 4.5% of GDP into R&D (highest in the world). Michael Sela former Director of Weizman institute said:

“Israel has managed to establish an excellent scientific base that makes it an important exporter of high technologies, most notably software and biotechnology. Israel has succeeded in doing so because of the way it has been concentrating resources in science and technology on basic research as well as its application in order to strengthen its economic base.”

“For a small country, we cannot be excellent at everything. But we have no right to make compromises in our effort to strive for excellence. Such a vision includes virtually complete academic freedom and the gathering of first-rate minds, which are then left alone to ripen at will.”

“But no matter what a national science policy looks like, it must not put any constraints on the scientists but rather give them the necessary freedom and means for them to carry out their work. As they are the specialists, they know better than any politician or executive which avenues to explore and which discoveries could be developed into new products.”

“At the Weizmann Institute, our philosophy is ‘Research for its own sake’, but whenever results from this free research have potential in the marketplace, we aim to pursue this energetically, preferably by our own industry.”

What do I propose for Ireland?

A combination of funding to priority areas and funding to small basic research projects across all areas.

Some money, reaching critical mass, should be given to excellent researchers, from any subject. About 25K per year will support one PhD student. One million per year for four years will support forty different research projects. Some of those will pay off. (we can’t predict which ones.)

Partnerships between a basic researcher and an applied researcher/developer should be supported. These two people could meet and discuss back and forth how to translate an idea towards the marketplace.  I have the impression that businesses, if asked what is the role of a university, say that it is NOT the patenting and spin-off, but the informal contacts, publications, conferences and joint R&D.

All this abstract policy talk is well and good, but it’s also about people. We have in Ireland, right now, some excellent people, in whatever subject and for whatever reason. Do we want to support the research of those people? If not, they need to know.


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