Use-Inspired Basic Research
Basic and applied research: conflict or opportunity?
It is often argued that there is a tension between the desire to carry out research in the quest for fundamental understanding ('basic research') and the desire to carry out research driven by specific considerations of actual or potential use ('applied research').
For example, OECD (2002) provide the following definitions:
"Basic Research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without anyparticular application or use in view"
"Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is ... directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective."
This difference - and the resulting tension - is often highlighted in recent debates concerning the importance of knowledge exchange activities and impact during research carried out by universities.
Interestingly, Stokes (1997) has argued that in the sciences, at least, the basic (Bohr) versus applied (Edison) research distinction is unwarranted. He highlights that a third class of research exists that involves a dynamic interaction between both considerations of use and fundamental understanding. He calls this 'use-inspired basic (Pasteur) research'.
In more mature areas of research, the Edison and Pasteur activities dominate whereas in newly emerging areas, the Bohr and Pasteur areas may be dominant. In either case, the opportunity exists to work in partnership with external end-users in order to carry out basic research whilst also maximising the opportunity to create impact. Knowledge exchange activities then can strengthen, rather than weaken research quality.
What are the benefits of collaboration with external users?
Knowledge exchange and collaboration with external users have a number of very significant benefits to academics. These include at least some of the following:
- Joint projects very often give access to extensive datasets/expertise/equipment that would be either impossible or very expensive to obtain for yourself
- You get to work with non-academic experts who have different working methods and ways of looking at research problems - this can be a very important learning experience for both sides
- Such collaborations open up a range of new funding opportunities, be they direct funding from the collaborating organization(s) or funding from a range of research council or other sources aimed at promoting knowledge exchange activities, e.g. KTPs, CASE studentships, Partnership Grants etc
- The resulting funding counts towards REF income targets
- Successful collaborations allow you to significantly increase the impact of your research
- They provide opportunities to create spin-out companies and develop a partnership approach to future interactions with external users
- There are also potential benefits to teaching activities, including the development of student projects (undergraduate or post graduate); access to case study materials for projects and practical classes and opportunities to visit partner organizations as part of student career development
What are the barriers to collaboration with external users?
According to Abreu et al. (2008), there are number of important barriers to knowledge exchange and collaboration between academia and external end user organisations:
- Lack of knowledge of potential partners, collaboration mechanisms and funding opportunities
- Differences in research culture and language
- Differences - or perceived differences - in research drivers
- Financial constraints, Intellectual Property (IP) and confidentiality issues
- Timescales, with universities often operating on significantly longer time scales
A key weakness in many cases is a lack of so-called 'gatekeepers' both within universities and external organisations. These are people who understand both the academic and external user environments well and who have extensive contact networks across the divide. They are able to disseminate information throughout their organisations, and act as knowledge exchange facilitators. In essence, they help to break down the barriers listed above and to enable effective collaboration.
Abreau, M., Grinevich, V., Hughes, A., Kitson, M. & Turnouth, P. 2008. Universities, Business and Knowledge Exchange. Council for Industries and Higher Education and Centre for Business Research. London and Cambridge, 62pp.
OECD (2002), Frascati Manual: Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys on Research and Experimental Development, 6th edition, Paris: OECD
Stokes, D. E. (1997) Pasteur's Quadrant. Basic science and technological innovation. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C.