Old Post: On Basic Research

[Originally posted December 2005]

One of the most important principles in economic growth is synergy. That is, if I have “1” and you have “1,” then together we have “2”; but if we can come together and somehow make our “1” and “1” into “3,” then we have achieved growth. That is what makes Donald Stokes’ book, Pasteur’s Quadrant, so important to those in government who seek economic growth, for it illustrates why and how science and government can form a richer, more synergistic compact.

Stokes describes how much of government’s relationship to the scientific community over the past sixty years has been shaped by Vannevar Bush’s report, “Science, the Endless Frontier.” Commissioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, the report was to cast a vision for science’s peacetime role after World War II. Bush’s description of scientific research was a linear one, from basic research to applied research and from scientific knowledge to technology transfer. It fit with the existing separation between pure and applied science, and was affirmed by the US’s massive funding of science during the war, most notably in the basic nuclear research that resulted in the development of nuclear weapons. Although many of Bush’s proposals were rejected, by and large government accepted his view of a pipeline, in which hefty investments in basic science on the one end would lead directly to important innovations on the other.

Stokes finds this one-dimensional perspective to be both inconsistent with historical scientific research and overly simplistic for our modern world. He laments the loss of genuine dialogue between science and government, and thus offers a new, two-dimensional paradigm, in which “use-inspired basic research” is upheld as an important middle ground between pure basic research and pure applied research. Pure basic research, typified by the work of Niels Bohr, is concerned with fundamental understanding and not with issues of use, while pure applied research, typified by the work of Thomas Edison, is concerned with issues of use and not with fundamental understanding. In contrast, use-inspired basic research, typified by the work of Louis Pasteur, seeks both understanding and use, and by linking the two offers richer pay-offs to science and technology, as well as the chance for science and government to better connect.

There is now a heightened urgency to renew this compact. Pure basic research is an important foundation from which countries can respond quickly to political threats and economic trends. However, the end of World War II and now of the Cold War has many believing that scientific research is less about national security, an inherently governmental function, and more about global competitiveness, which many believe is better left to the private sector. Moreover, it is easier for the public to appreciate science for what it does, not for what it is, and to see scientists seeking government funding as just another interest group looking out for itself.

Use-inspired basic research, then, offers a way for science and government to invest in pure basic research but also make the connection to societally important solutions and technological innovation. Japan after World War II, for example, saw more easily the grays between pure and applied science, and invested heavily in basic science linked to practical solutions, resulting in impressive science-based technology gains, industry leadership, and economic growth.

A new compact between government and science, then, would renew government’s support of pure basic research, connect it with practical applications, and infuse it with political authority. Bifurcating pure inquiry from practical use is inferior to blending the two, funding research that seeks a duality of goals, and demanding results that advance both agendas. Use-inspired basic research also opens the door for science and technology to better support one another, rather than information and lessons flowing only in one direction and for one purpose.

Most politicians think they understand the link between technological innovation and economic development, but to them that means recruiting existing technology companies, for the jobs and tax revenues they represent. Stealing a tech firm from another city may make a big splash in the local papers, but if “1” and “1” only add up to “2,” that’s not growth, just redistribution.

“1 + 1 = 3” synergies come from true technological innovations, which require a hearty mix of pure basic research, pure applied research, and use-inspired basic research. Easier said than done – how many politicians have announced fancy biotech initiatives with great fanfare but with little substance. Yet governments can and should play an important role in catalyzing efforts on all three fronts, both in direct agency work and in support of private sector work.

The state of Maryland is a good example of dynamic collaboration between the public and private sector. Maryland boasts excellent academic and research institutions, proximity to federal government opportunities, and vibrant business clusters in industries such as homeland security, aerospace, and biosciences. The state understands the interplay between technological innovation and economic growth, as evidenced by fruitful public/private partnerships that span the spectrum between pure basic research, pure technology transfer, and use-inspired basic research. Whether the work is done by Johns Hopkins University, the National Institutes of Health, the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, or a for-profit company, the state of Maryland is committed to fostering the kinds of dialogue between science and government that Stokes suggests is necessary for technology and innovation. When you can support the work of the Bohrs, the Edisons, and the Pasteurs of the world, and get them to talk to each other, like Maryland has been able to, now you have yourself an effective technology policy.

Post a Comment