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In Praise of Basic Research, or It Doesn’t All Have to Be Useful

I try to remember to do basic research every once in a while, where I figure out how the world works without a goal in mind. This contrasts with applied research, which is about solving particular problems or taking advantage of specific opportunities.

The distinction can be pretty clear in science. For example, in physics (my undergrad degree), basic research looks into the nature of fundamental particles. Applied research would try to answer functional questions, like “how do I use my knowledge of fundamental particles to build a nano-sized robot?”

In my field, basic research could mean watching a bunch of different YouTube videos, including some ads; it’s not the content that matters as much as the format, the storytelling approach, etc. Or I might skim a bunch of blog posts about what’s working for online communications. Or I might poke around some new whizbang social media site to see what it’s all about.

I might never use what I learn, or it might rattle around for quite some time, then pop out in unexpected ways. For example, several years ago Google launched Gmail by inviting people to submit short video clips showing the logo moving across the screen. They then compiled the clips into a single video set to music. A couple of years later, we were trying to inspire people to take ownership of the environment. That Google concept popped into my head, and we ended up with It’s My Environment, with more than 100 people and groups submitting clips showing themselves doing something good for the planet. Our first compilation was then seen more than 9000 times.

I’m not saying applied research isn’t important. We all need to solve problems most of the time. But we also need to find the time to do basic research. Otherwise, we’ll never hit that inspiration that makes the world tilt a couple of degrees.

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Mark Hammer

Almost exactly 38 years ago, one of my profs came to class with a suitcase completely stuffed with journal articles. He told us that in our discipline (psychology), there was never enough hands-on experience at the undergraduate level, and that we were going to mimic research experience that afternoon. He described to us the hypothesis, design, and findings of the first paper ever published in a particular area. Our job was to say what we should do next. In his marvelous suitcase was the entire ensuing 15 years of research, which he knew intimately, such that he could whip out the paper exploring the precise parameters we had pondered. He’d tell us what we found, and we’d suggest the next study to do. It went on like that for 90 minutes, and when we emerged, our hair was matted to our foreheads with sweat. To be expected, since we did 15 years of research in 90 minutes.

I emerged from that a changed man. One of the things I learned was that science is like a maze and can be very deceptive. Avenues of research can appear very promising, but ultimately after pursuing them for a while, you see they lead to a dead end. Meanwhile other areas that can seem pointless and meandering, end up being the pathway to unlocking the dead end from the other side.

You never really know where to place your chips, and anyone who believes that all our research efforts (and funds) should now be focussed on THIS is a fool. The bottom line is that it is ALL going to matter at some point, and none of us right now know when or where that point is. So do the basic research. It WILL matter at some point, and no one should tell you otherwise. DO keep an eye open for what enduring questions in the field could use a little help in being answered, but apart from that, march on!

Of course, the same prof reminded us that 95% of what there is to know, we already know, and that last 5% requires an enormous amount of effort and time to learn.

Silvia D. Silverman

As someone who does not do a lot of “linear thinking” I love basic research. It really helps to get people thinking outside the box and increases the opportunity for making connections between/among subject that might seem completely unrelated.

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

I never thought of it as basic research but engage in it all the time. When I start a new job, I catalog every file folder available and outline it’s contents. This gives me a quick history of my area. I try to meet in person everyone connected to the job and get information about reports they supply or I supply to determine if the information is relevant or needs to be revamped. Hate doing work that ends up in the round file.

I also engage people from other departments. Gets me known as somewhat of a social butterfly, but I find out so much information about what is going on in the company or agency. I can point out that we might be headed in the wrong direction because I heard the company is supposed to be trying to do X. It really pays off.

The internet and groups like GovLoop provide many entertaining hours throughout the year of basic research.

Amaze your friends and impress your enemies with knowledge gleaned from every person you communicate with. I can’t get enough.

Dorothy Ramienski Amatucci

I love, love, love this, mainly because “basic research” — or research with no real “purpose” — can lead to answers to concrete problems you might be facing. I always keep the story of penicillin in mind: something that’s incredibly useful today that was discovered completely by accident. Plus, exercising your brain and exploring areas outside of one’s expertise is never, ever a bad thing IMHO.

Jay Johnson

You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path. – Steve Jobs