Definitions: Basic science is research conducted without immediate applications in mind. It is driven by the "curiosity [...] to expand [humanity's] knowledge, not to create or invent something." Applied science, on the other hand, is conducted to "solve practical problems of the world, rather than acquire knowledge for knowledge's sake," or to "improve the human condition."

Edit (as per JeffE's suggestion): Let us define 'we' as academics, and 'to whom' as questioners ranging from grad students experienced with research, to sponsors familiar with research, and to the general public (friends, family, etc.) in fields outside of research.

Question: How can we justify funding for basic research? In other words, how can we justify maintaining the status quo for (or even increasing) the funding of research without immediate applications?

Why address this question?

Over the past 10 years internationally, funding in both the public and private sectors for basic research has been decreasing. In 2014, Canada cut funding for basic science in 2014* to "place a new emphasis on applied research."

Likewise, Austrian researchers reported in 2011 of a popular opinion in their country "to [avoid investing] in costly basic research when the results of other countries’ basic research are [...] available without charge."

Finally, a 2014 article in Nature reported of basic funding cuts in favour of "a focus on applied research [...] in Argentina, Canada, Denmark, [France], Italy, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States."

Outside of shaping policy, addressing this question can inspire graduate students who may be doubting the usefulness of their research, create an informative resource for undergrads considering a career in basic research**, and provide meaningful answers when asked by the general public (friends, family, journalists, etc.).

Explanatory footnotes:

*More precisely, the CIHR (Canadian Institute of Health and Research) reduced funding as Canada's "federal funding body for biomedical research." Another source by the CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) reported that "federal support for basic research has slowed significantly over the past six years [2007-2013]."

**Interestingly, researchers of a study in The American Biology Teacher "designed an activity in which students take part in a mock grant panel [for disbursing funds for grant applications]. The results indicated a strong tendency toward student funding of applied medical research at the expense of basic research. Exposure to a few examples of important basic research moderates this tendency."

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    "to [avoid investing] in costly basic research when the results of other countries’ basic research are [...] available without charge." This strategy does not even pass the universalizability test. – svavil Aug 13 '16 at 10:25
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    Who is "we", and justify to whom? – JeffE Aug 13 '16 at 13:16
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    @svavil Please correct me if I'm interpreting what you're saying incorrectly. I think you're saying that what the Austrian researchers are arguing is inadvisable - that is, not every country with a "limited R&D budget" (as quoted in the article) should invest in basic research. – elan.em Aug 13 '16 at 13:42
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    Why do we fund basic research? Because research needs money. Why do we do basic research? Because it is important. – adipro Aug 13 '16 at 14:34
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    I think the question should be turned around: if applied research is going to yield applications and thus would probably have benefits only to the bank accounts of a few private companies, why should society or universities invest in anything but basic research? – Dilworth Aug 13 '16 at 21:21

I split this answer into three sections by the type of source (peer-reviewed literature, Stack Exchange, and miscellaneous). Each source is followed by a quote and/or a short description.

I also included a summary of key takeaways at the end.

The Literature

Woods, N. N., Brooks, L. R. and Norman, G. R. (2005), The value of basic science in clinical diagnosis: creating coherence among signs and symptoms. Medical Education, 39: 107–112. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2929.2004.02036.x

This study investigated the relationship between basic science knowledge and skill in diagnosing relevant diseases. The researchers concluded the study by saying that:

[...] the study has shown that, in comparison with students who learned conditional probabilities, students provided with a basic science explanation for diagnostic categories were better able to accurately diagnose cases after a delay.

A plausible explanation is that the basic science information, because of its conceptual coherence, was itself more memorable, and that it also provided a means to reconstruct the features of individual disease categories after the initial symptom lists had been forgotten.

Magne, F. (1993). Importance of basic research in applied phycology. Hydrobiologia, 260-261(1), 25-29. doi:10.1007/BF00048999

The section of the abstract below highlights what Magne views as the value of basic research in the applied study of algae (aka phycology).

It is noteworthy that [applied phycology] research can not avoid the use of knowledge obtained by basic research; applied phycology is especially indebted to basic research in adopting biotechnologies which are typically coming from basic research.

Leander, C. A., & Whitton, J. (2010). Bling my research! A mock grant panel activity illustrating the importance of basic research. The American Biology Teacher, 72(5), 308+.

In a classroom activity, the researchers demonstrated the importance of basic research to first-year undergrads. In describing their methods, the researchers said:

First, show the class a photograph of a cancer cell labeled "GFP." [...] Briefly mention the leaps in understanding of cancer cell growth and cell division that GFP has made possible. Introduce the students to [...] Osamu Shimomura, who [...] was hired to simply investigate why a dried jellyfish glowed green when crushed. The resulting manuscript describing GFP gives no hint to the future implications of this protein (Shimomura et al., 1957), a discovery for which he would eventually share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008.

Finally, [...] [m]ention the importance of sequencing in understanding the evolution of HIV. [...] [I]ntroduce them to a profile of John Trela, Alice Chien, and David Edgar, who discovered Taq polymerase during basic research investigations. This discovery has earned billions of dollars in royalties (Fore et al., 2006) yet was the unintentional result of a basic research investigation into life at high temperatures (Chien et al., 1976).


Dr. George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said:

People cannot foresee the future well enough to predict what's going to develop from basic research. If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears.

Stack Exchange

Asked by biotech on Biology Stack Exchange: "Why is knowledge of bacterial pathogenesis important?"

Chris♦ wrote a brilliant answer in the link above. Below is an excerpt:

The contributions of basic research is the basis for applied research and drug design. Without them, this wouldn't work. Besides that it is also the curiosity of humans which drives science - without having any particular application in mind. These often come much later.

An answer relevant to this question on Academia Stack Exchange: "How can a researcher improve his contribution to society?"

User eykanal♦ said:

[T]ry to take to heart that basic research is directly useful to society. Almost all modern pharmacology is based on decades of fundamental biochemistry and biology research. Materials science is based on years of basic chemistry and physics research. Basic math research fuels advances in all types of engineering, from signal processing to computational work to structural engineering.

In a comment, user Anonymous Mathematician responded:

I think it's important to frame things as eykanal suggests [...] message should be "basic research is of great value to society in the long run, and here are some other things I do that have shorter-term impact", rather than "here are some things I do to make up for the fact that my research sounds abstract and useless".


A sequence of compelling arguments in support of pure mathematics research can be found in the link above on Math Overflow.



A statement by the International Council of Science said:

Whilst an exclusive focus on application may have some merit in the short-term, there are several reasons why neglecting basic research is seriously flawed in the longer-term:

  1. Basic and applied science are a continuum. They are inter-dependent. The integration of basic and applied research is crucial to problem-solving, innovation and product development.

  2. Skilled scientists with a good understanding of the basic theories and practice [are required for the] successful transfer of scientific knowledge.

  3. Excessive dependency on scientific progress in other countries is rarely likely to lead to the resolution of local problems. Countries need to be able to generate their own scientific knowledge and adapt this to their own local context and needs.

  4. The practice of science is increasingly international and the research agenda is set by those who participate. A country with no basic scientific research capacity effectively excludes itself from having any real influence on the future directions of science.

A secondary source by the AAAS on an MIT report (the link to the primary source appears to be broken) states:

"Basic research is often misunderstood, because it often seems to have no immediate payoff," the MIT report says. "Yet it was just such federally funded research into the fundamental working of cells, intensified beginning with the 'War on Cancer' in 1971, that led over time to a growing arsenal of sophisticated new anticancer therapies — 19 new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past two years."

It adds, "Do we want similar progress on Alzheimer's, which already affects five million Americans, more than any single form of cancer? Then we should expand research in neurobiology, brain chemistry and the science of aging."

A very similar question to this on Quora asked, "How do you explain the importance of basic/fundamental science to non-scientists?"

The most compelling answer to me by Marc Srour is quoted below:

I assume someone who needs to have the importance of fundamental science explained to them doesn't care much for the "satisfying curiosity and thirst for knowledge" aspect of science (which, to me anyway, is the dominant one), so I jump straight to practicalities.

[...] [Y]ou can't predict the road that science will take. Even if you try to only do applied sciences, fundamental research will be needed to develop new tools and methodologies, or else you'll just be running around in circles and never getting any new developments.

In extension of Srour's attitude of doing basic research for basic research's sake, I'd like to quote an interpretation of the views of physicist Richard Feynman in a review by Chris Toumey of the University of South Carolina. Here, Toumey wrote:

The reason for [Feynman] doing science is to satisfy a curiosity about nature. [...] Too few people, he complained, understood "the emotions of awe, wonder, delight and love which are evoked upon learning Nature's ways…My lament is that a kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science, is seen by so few others" (24 October 1967).

In a 1959 television interview, [Feynman said]: "The reason that I do science…is…not the usual motivation for helping human beings. The main motivation is the curiosity and interest to find out about the world we're in" (pages 419-420). He easily conceded, of course, that scientists see the consequences of their work, but he adamantly bracketed their motivations from the applications of that work which the rest of the world experiences.


The following is a bulleted list of key takeaways from the sources above.

  • Basic science knowledge is linked to better clinical diagnostic skills (aka diagnosing diseases) (Woods et al., 2005).
  • The investigation of "why a dried jellyfish glowed green when crushed" led to the discovery of GFP (green fluorescent protein), which led to "leaps in understanding [cancer]." Furthermore, "a basic research investigation into life at high temperatures" led to advancements in DNA sequencing. This directly led to further understanding of "the evolution of HIV," earning "billions of dollars in royalties" (Leander & Whitton, 2010).
  • Basic research is a necessity if we want to meaningfully continue advancements in applied research, especially drug discovery (Chris♦, 2015).
  • As stated by Stack Exchange user eykanal♦ (2014), "Basic research is directly useful to society. Almost all modern pharmacology is based on decades of fundamental biochemistry and biology research. Materials science is based on years of basic chemistry and physics research. Basic math research fuels advances in all types of engineering."
  • According to the International Council of Science (2004), "Excessive dependency on scientific progress in other countries is rarely likely to lead to the resolution of local problems." Furthermore, "A country with no basic scientific research capacity effectively excludes itself from having any real influence on the future directions of science."
  • According to a 2015 MIT report, "Basic research is often misunderstood [...] because it often seems to have no immediate payoff." However, the report contends it has directly led to the development of 19 new anticancer drugs over the past two years.
  • The report further says, "Do we want similar progress on Alzheimer's, which already affects five million Americans, more than any single form of cancer? Then we should expand research in neurobiology, brain chemistry and the science of aging."
  • Basic research is beautiful. It's both intrinsically emotionally and intellectually stimulating; basic research for the sake of itself is rewarding unto itself.
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    I would like to add a point that is only touched upon shortly in the end of this answer: Apart from all utilitarian arguments, one justification for basic research should be similar to the response to the question "Why is there public funding for the arts?" – Because it is part of our culture and is widely considered as a defining quality of what makes us human! A society as a whole is free to decide that it is worthwhile to support such activities (be it art or fundamental science) and indeed many societies in our world do. – Emil Aug 14 '16 at 17:47

I think a more interesting way of formulating the question is "how can we decide what is the right amount to spend on basic research?". Sometimes scientists seem to argue as if the right amount is something close to infinity, or at least to argue that more is always better, which amounts to the same thing. And that position is clearly absurd.

Any discussion of this question should not only consider the benefits of doing basic research, but also the costs: (a) the money could be spent doing something else, and (b) basic research is only effective if done by the smartest people available, and this deprives other activities of these smart people.

So, I don't know the right answer, but I do get frustrated by answers along the lines of that from @adam.al which spend a lot of time making a very good (indeed irrefutable) case that basic research has real benefits, without really helping to answer the question of whether we are doing too much or too little of it given the other things that we could be doing with the same resources.

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    The way I see things, I set the objective of the question to consolidate viewpoints in favour of "maintaining the status quo for (or even increasing) the funding of [basic research]" in response to decreased basic research funding internationally. In doing so, I failed to address the question of "Should we even maintain the status quo or consider increasing the funding of basic research?"; this was one-sided. What do you suggest to be more balanced - a new section in the question, a new question completely, community edits (with permission) to your answer, or something else? Thanks. – elan.em Aug 13 '16 at 14:41
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    Wouldn't that be more suited to a comment, though? As of now, this argues how one should reinterpret and answer the question, yet does not actually do it. – Clement C. Aug 13 '16 at 15:31

Some additional thoughts here (I'm a social scientist, but have worked in science policy, etc.)

  1. It might be good to read Donald Stoke's Pasteur's Quadrant, which discusses differences between "applied" science, "pure" science, use-inspired science, etc. Stokes suggests that there's not a continuum between pure and applied science--it's a bit more complex. There's a summary of the argument on Wikipedia if that helps.

  2. It may be worth pointing out that a lot of work in fundamental science ends up having applications years later that no one really knows about, but that pays big dividends later. One example is research on lasers, particularly shorter-wavelength lasers. Shorter wavelengths: more density on a CD-ROM (which is how we got to Bluray disks). Sort of a mundane example. Another one is the discovery that the Philadelphia genetic translocation was associated with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), and that a class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are effective in suppressing the result of this translocation (the proliferaiton of white blood cells). I'm not expert in the science here, but the book The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner tells an excellent story about how a series of serendipitous discoveries, motivated by people working in fundamental science, came together to lead to a very effective treatment for a disease that was once broadly fatal.

This are but two examples, and there may be better ones others could propose.

The decision of where to spend research dollars, and how much, is as much a sociopolitical question as it is an economic question--perhaps more so. The return on investment calculation on basic science is hard to calculate. And there are some values that basic science provides that are not monetizable. Can we prove the economic value of the Hubble Deep Field project, that found some of the youngest and most distant galaxies in the Universe? It's worthwhile posing this question: In an nation with a GDP of about $18 trillion, and assuming the HDF cost $10 billion, is it worth spending 0.05% of the GDP on knowledge for its own sake? I think we could make that argument. ($10 billion, for what it's worth, is more than NSF's annual budget).

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