Basic research is research that focuses on expanding human knowledge, without obvious practical applications.
For a scholarly definition, we can turn to Grimsgaard (2023):
“Basic research, also called pure, theoretical or fundamental research, tends to focus more on ‘big picture’ topics, such as increasing the scientific knowledge base around a particular topic.”
It is contrasted with applied research, which “seeks to solve real world problems” (Lehmann, 2023).
Generally, basis research has no clear economic or market value, meaning it tends to take place in universities rather than private organizations. Nevertheless, this blue-skies basic research can lead to enormous technological breakthroughs that forms the foundation for future applied research.
Basic Research Examples
- Physics: Understanding the properties of neutrinos.
- Medicine: Investigating the role of gut microbiota in mental health.
- Anthropology: Studying the social structures of ancient civilizations.
- Biology: Exploring the mechanism of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing.
- Psychology: Understanding the cognitive development in infants.
- Chemistry: Researching new catalytic processes for organic synthesis.
- Astronomy: Investigating the life cycle of stars.
- Sociology: Exploring the impacts of social media on society.
- Ecology: Studying the biodiversity in rainforests.
- Computer Science: Developing new algorithms for machine learning.
- Mathematics: Exploring new approaches to number theory.
- Economics: Investigating the causes and effects of inflation.
- Linguistics: Researching the evolution of languages over time.
- Political Science: Studying the effects of political campaigns on voter behavior.
- Geology: Investigating the formation of mountain ranges.
- Architecture: Studying ancient building techniques and materials.
- Education: Researching the impact of remote learning on academic performance.
- History: Investigating trade routes in the medieval period.
- Literature: Analyzing symbolism in 19th-century novels.
- Philosophy: Exploring concepts of justice in different cultures.
- Environmental Science: Studying the impact of plastics on marine life.
- Genetics: Investigating the role of specific genes in aging.
- Engineering: Researching materials for improving battery technology.
- Art History: Investigating the influence of politics on Renaissance art.
- Agricultural Science: Studying the impact of pest management practices on crop yield.
1. Understanding the Structure of the Atom
The study of atomic structure began in the early 1800s, with John Dalton’s atomic theory suggesting that atoms were indivisible and indestructible. However, it was not until the 20th century that Ernest Rutherford’s gold foil experiment led to the discovery of the nucleus and the proposal of the planetary model of the atom, which was further refined by Niels Bohr and eventually led to the quantum mechanical model, showing that electrons move in orbital shells around the nucleus.
- Topic: Investigating the structure and behavior of atoms.
- Purpose: Understand the fundamental particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons) and forces that govern atomic behavior.
- Methodology: Utilize particle accelerators, theoretical models, and experimental physics.
- Significance: Fundamental understanding of atomic structures has paved the way for numerous technological and scientific breakthroughs, such as the development of nuclear energy and advancements in chemistry and materials science.
Outcomes and Further Developments:
- Discovery and exploration of subatomic particles like quarks.
- Development of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory.
- Subsequent advancements in various scientific fields, such as nuclear physics, chemistry, and nanotechnology.
2. Researching the Human Genome
The Human Genome Project, an international research effort that began in 1990, aimed to sequence and map all of the genes – collectively known as the genome – of humans. Completed in 2003, it represented a monumental achievement in science, providing researchers with powerful tools to understand the genetic factors in human disease, paving the way for new strategies for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
- Topic: Investigating the structure, function, and mapping of the human genome.
- Purpose: Understand the genetic makeup of humans, identify genes, and learn how they work.
- Methodology: Techniques like DNA sequencing, genetic mapping, and computational biology.
- Significance: Foundational for various advancements in genetics, medicine, and biology, providing insights into diseases, development, and evolution.
Outcomes and Further Developments:
- Completion of the Human Genome Project, which mapped the entire human genome.
- Advancements in personalized medicine, genetic testing, and gene therapy.
- Development of CRISPR technology, enabling precise genetic editing.
Basic Research vs Applied Research
Basic research focuses on expanding knowledge and understanding fundamental concepts without immediate practical application, while applied research focuses on solving specific, practical problems using the knowledge gained from basic research (Akcigit, Hanley & Serrano-Velarde, 2021).
A simple comparison of definitions is below:
- Basic research seeks to gain greater knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena.
- Applied research seeks to solve practical problems the researcher or their stakeholders are facing.
A researcher might choose basic research over applied if their primary motivation is to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and contribute to academic theories, whilst they might favor applied research if they are more interested in achieving immediate solutions, innovations, or enhancements impacting real-world scenarios (Akcigit, Hanley & Serrano-Velarde, 2021; Baetu, 2016).
To learn more about applied research, check out my article on applied research.
Pros and Cons of Basic Research
The primary advantage of basic research is that it generates knowledge and understanding of fundamental principles that can later serve as a foundation for technological advancement or social betterment.
It can lead to groundbreaking discoveries, stimulate creativity, and drive scientific innovation by satisfying human curiosity (Akcigit, Hanley & Serrano-Velarde, 2021; Baetu, 2016).
It is also often the catalyst for training the next generation of scientists and researchers.
However, basic research can be time-consuming, expensive, and its outcomes may not always be directly observable or immediately beneficial.
This is why it’s often left to government-funded research institutes and universities to conduct this sort of research. As Binswanger (2014) argues, “basic research constitutes, for the most part, a common good which cannot be sold profitably on markets.
Furthermore, its value is often underestimated because the applications are not immediately apparent or tangible.
Below is a summary of some advantages and disadvantages of basic research:
|Pros of Basic Research||Cons of Basic Research|
|Expands fundamental knowledge and understanding||May not have immediate practical applications (Hanley & Serrano-Velarde, 2021; Lehmann, 2023)|
|Drives technological and scientific innovation||Can be expensive and resource-intensive|
|Enables future applied research (Wild & Diggines, 2009)||Outcomes can be uncertain|
|Can lead to unexpected discoveries||May be deemed less prioritized during economic downturns|
|Enhances educational processes||Can be time-consuming (Abeysekera, 2019)|
|Promotes intellectual growth and stimulation||Research may become obsolete or be disproven in the future|
|Addresses curiosity and theoretical questions||May require specialized knowledge or equipment|
|Can inform policy and guide future research (Baetu, 2016; Lehmann, 2023)||Results might not be directly applicable or translatable to real-world problems (Akcigit, Hanley & Serrano-Velarde, 2021)|
|Encourages development of new methodologies||Ethical concerns may arise during the research|
|Boosts global knowledge and international collaboration||Competition for funding can hinder collaboration and data sharing|
Abeysekera, A. (2019). Basic research and applied research. Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka, 47(3).
Akcigit, U., Hanley, D., & Serrano-Velarde, N. (2021). Back to basics: Basic research spillovers, innovation policy, and growth. The Review of Economic Studies, 88(1), 1-43.
Baetu, T. M. (2016). The ‘big picture’: the problem of extrapolation in basic research. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
Bentley, P. J., Gulbrandsen, M., & Kyvik, S. (2015). The relationship between basic and applied research in universities. Higher Education, 70, 689-709. (Source)
Binswanger, M. (2014). How nonsense became excellence: forcing professors to publish. In Welpe, I. M., Wollersheim, J., Osterloh, M., & Ringelhan, S. (Eds.), Incentives and Performance: Governance of Research Organizations. Springer International Publishing.
Grimsgaard, W. (2023). Design and strategy: a step by step guide. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Lehmann, W. (2023). Social Media Theory and Communications Practice. London: Taylor & Francis.
Wiid, J., & Diggines, C. (2009). Marketing Research. Juta.
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]