Applied research is research intended to solve specific and practical problems faced by the researcher and their shareholders.
Grimsgaard (2023) defines it below:
“Applied research tends to drill down more toward solving specific problems that affect people in the here and now.”
It is contrasted to basic research, which is research for its own sake. Bentley, Gulbrandsen and Kyvik (2015) define basic research as “research undertaken with a primary purpose of the advancement of knowledge for its own sake.”
The key benefit of applied research is that it helps solve problems in the real world – it is the embodiment of the concept of ‘invention is the mother of invention. But if we only did applied research, we wouldn’t achieve any of the blue skies breakthroughs that are achieved through basis research.
In fact, applied research often follows up from basic research, finding ways to apply that basic research to real-life needs in society.
Applied Research Examples
- Medicine: Development of a new vaccine to combat a specific viral strain.
- Computer Science: Creating an algorithm to enhance image recognition in smartphones.
- Agriculture: Introducing a genetically modified crop variety to improve yield and pest resistance.
- Psychology: Implementing cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to treat anxiety disorders.
- Environmental Science: Designing a method to purify water using solar energy in remote areas.
- Engineering: Developing a more efficient and lightweight battery for electric cars.
- Education: Evaluating the effectiveness of online teaching methods on student performance.
- Economics: Assessing the impact of a new taxation policy on consumer spending.
- Sociology: Creating community programs based on studies of urban youth engagement.
- Architecture: Designing earthquake-resistant buildings based on geological research.
- Nutrition: Formulating a diet plan to mitigate the effects of type 2 diabetes.
- Linguistics: Developing language learning apps based on cognitive linguistics research.
- Sports Science: Designing a training regimen to enhance the performance of long-distance runners.
- Marketing: Analyzing consumer behavior to optimize product placement in retail stores.
- Geology: Creating risk assessment tools for communities near active volcanoes.
- Transportation: Designing an urban transportation system based on traffic flow research.
- Marine Biology: Establishing sustainable fishing guidelines based on studies of fish populations.
- Chemistry: Developing a new drug formulation for faster pain relief.
- Physics: Creating more efficient solar panels based on the study of photovoltaic materials.
- Communication Studies: Implementing crisis communication strategies for corporations based on media research.
- Aerospace Engineering: Designing a new airplane wing for reduced fuel consumption.
- Biotechnology: Producing biofuels from algae after studying their growth and energy properties.
- Musicology: Enhancing acoustics in concert halls based on sound wave research.
- Pharmacology: Testing a new drug to treat a rare form of cancer.
- Urban Planning: Designing green spaces in cities based on studies of residents’ mental well-being.
1. The Invention of the Internet
One of the most celebrated examples of applied research leading to a groundbreaking invention is the development of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee, a British engineer and computer scientist, was working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. His task was to find a way to allow scientists to share data and research results efficiently across the world. The challenge was significant because, at that time, there were no universally accepted and easy-to-use methods for data sharing and retrieval across different computer networks and platforms.
In solving this problem, Berners-Lee developed the three fundamental technologies that remain the foundation of today’s Web (and which you may recognize!):
- HTML: HyperText Markup Language
- URI: Uniform Resource Identifier
- HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol
These technologies enabled the creation and retrieval of linked documents and multimedia across a network of computers. Berners-Lee also created the first web browser and web server to demonstrate and utilize these technologies.
The invention of the World Wide Web has had a profound and transformative impact on society, affecting almost every aspect of our daily lives, including communication, education, business, and entertainment. Berners-Lee’s applied research, initially aimed at solving a specific problem related to scientific data sharing, ended up unleashing a revolutionary tool that reshaped the world.
2. The Discovery of Penicillin
The discovery and development of penicillin, an antibiotic, by Alexander Fleming and its subsequent mass production shows how applied research can lead to revolutionary inventions.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, observed that a mold called Penicillium notatum was able to kill bacteria in a petri dish. This discovery was quite accidental and came while Fleming was researching staphylococci, a type of bacteria. At this point, it was just basic research.
But in 1939, Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain took Fleming’s discovery from a useful laboratory finding to a life-saving drug through extensive research and development. They conducted systematic, applied research to figure out how to mass-produce and purify penicillin.
By 1941, the team had successfully treated its first patient with penicillin, marking a major milestone in medicinal history.
But it was in the years of World War II that penicillin really became a life safer – literally. During World War II, the production of penicillin was scaled up massively to treat wounded soldiers, saving countless lives that might have been lost to bacterial infections.
Fleming’s initial discovery and the subsequent applied research by Florey, Chain, and their team transformed penicillin into a practical, widely available antibiotic.
The development and mass production of penicillin marked the beginning of the antibiotic era, fundamentally altering medicine by providing an effective treatment for bacterial infections.
Applied vs Basic Research
Unlike applied research, basic research seeks to expand knowledge and understanding of fundamental principles and theories without immediate application in mind (Abeysekera, 2019; Bentley, Gulbrandsen & Kyvik, 2015).
Basic research is exploratory and often driven by curiosity or the academic interests of the researcher. The results may not have immediate practical implications but can form the foundation for future applied research (Grimsgaard, 2023).
Applied research, on the other hand, is aimed at addressing specific problems or questions, with the intent of applying the findings to practical solutions or actions (Abeysekera, 2019; Baimyrzaeva, 2018).
It is more structured, systematic, and focused on practical problem-solving or enhancing existing methods. The results are typically intended for immediate application, with direct, observable implications.
Benefits and Limitations of Applied Research
Applied research is specifically designed to address immediate problems, which is one of its greatest advantages.
It helps businesses, industries and policy makers improve operations, products, services or policies, thereby providing practical and immediate solutions (Baimyrzaeva, 2018).
Moreover, its impact can be quantified, making it easier to secure funding. However, the main disadvantage is that it is narrowly focused and its findings may not be universally applicable.
However, the desire for quick, practical results can constrain the methodology, perhaps limiting creativity or ignoring broader implications (Baimyrzaeva, 2018; Marotti de Mello & Wood 2019).
The pressure for immediate usability can also drive researchers towards safe, predictable projects rather than innovative or risky ones.
|Pros of Applied Research||Cons of Applied Research|
|1. Directly Addresses Real-world Issues: Applied research is inherently designed to solve practical problems, often resulting in immediate and tangible benefits (Dunn, 2012).||1. Practical Focus Limits Theory: Applied research tends to prioritize practical outcomes over theoretical discovery, which might limit the exploration of underlying principles (Abeysekera, 2019).|
|2. Facilitates Product Development: Results from applied research commonly lead to the development of new products, tools, or technologies that can have a direct impact on industries and markets.||2. Short-term Orientation: Projects might be oriented toward short-term goals to meet the immediate needs of sponsors, which may overlook long-term implications and benefits (Bentley, Gulbrandsen & Kyvik, 2015).|
|3. Informs Policy-making: Applied research can provide robust data to inform and shape policies, strategies, and protocols in various domains like healthcare, education, and public administration (Dunn, 2012).||3. Dependency on Funding: Research agendas might be overly influenced by funding sources, possibly skewing priorities or outcomes to align with sponsor interests (Bentley, Gulbrandsen & Kyvik, 2015).|
|4. Boosts Economic Development: Innovations stemming from applied research can lead to the creation of new industries, enhance existing ones, and potentially boost economic growth (Abeysekera, 2019).||4. Risk of Biased Results: There can be a risk of producing results that are more desirable or favorable for sponsors, especially in privately funded research (Marotti de Mello & Wood 2019).|
|5. Enhances Existing Practices: Insights from applied research can refine and optimize existing practices and methodologies, ensuring they are as efficient, effective, and relevant as possible (Baimyrzaeva, 2018; Bentley, Gulbrandsen & Kyvik, 2015).||5. Limited Generalizability: Solutions derived for specific situations might be very context-specific, and findings may not always be generalizable or applicable to different settings or populations (Abeysekera, 2019).|
Abeysekera, A. (2019). Basic research and applied research. Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka, 47(3).
Baimyrzaeva, M. (2018). Beginners’ guide for applied research process: What is it, and why and how to do it. University of Central Asia, 4(8).
Bentley, P. J., Gulbrandsen, M., & Kyvik, S. (2015). The relationship between basic and applied research in universities. Higher Education, 70, 689-709. (Source)
Dunn, D. S. (2012). Research Methods for Social Psychology (2nd ed.). Wiley Global Education.
Grimsgaard, W. (2023). Design and strategy: a step by step guide. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Marotti de Mello, A., & Wood Jr, T. (2019). What is applied research anyway?. Revista de Gestão, 26(4), 338-339. (Source)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]