What Kind of Research?

Here are some thoughts based upon a reading of Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony by Lewis Thomas

Scientific Research can be broken down into roughly two areas, Basic and Applied. This is not a black and white issue, but more of a continuum.

Basic Research - "What if…" is done in the "absence of any predictable, usable product" Curiosity is the incentive.

Applied Research - "How to…" with a definite goal and product in mind. Money or service is the incentive.

Which is better?

Neither! they are both needed. Here is how it works:

Basic research gets the ball rolling, creating a pool of ideas, like colors on an artist's palette. If done exclusively, libraries are filled up with "useless" information, people starve and die needlessly, and resources are used up that could have at least helped others. Without these colors (ideas), the applied scientist "artist" has little to work with. There is a limit to how many products can be made with limited ideas for new ones. If done exclusively applied research eats up resources without solving the problem either.


A new strain of flu hits. Using applied research, a scientists can use well worked out techniques to produce a flu vaccine. The flu vaccine did not exist before the applied research scientist produced it, but the "ideas" for producing it already existed, so the scientist did not have to "start from scratch."

Now, what happens if an entirely new disease comes around that no one has seen before? The applied research scientist may try a few of the "tried and true" methods used for other diseases. Sometimes this works.

The basic research scientist starts by not even looking for a cure for the disease. They first study the disease itself, how it works, what is its needs, etc. All of this research is published or presented at meetings. Another scientist looks at this research and pools this knowledge along with other knowledge that may not be related at all. Each scientist will have a different pool of knowledge that they found interesting or important. This scientist comes up with a possible cure for the disease. The applied research scientist finally steps in, with knowledge of manufacturing techniques, etc. and brings the idea to the point of a useful product or procedure for curing the disease.

In the example, three levels of science were needed to solve the second problem. What was the 2nd level? Remember, I told you that BASIC and APPLIED were not black and white terms. These "middle" scientists uses tools from both camps. They have a clear goal in mind, though not necessarily a product yet. They use "What If" scenarios and goals to investigate the problem further to find an answer.

One must also keep in mind that the problem may not be solvable at this time or ever. The technology, knowledge or resources may be lacking. Not all problems are solvable. We will probably never be able to walk through solid walls. So, a good scientist recognizes blind alleys. Only about 1 in 100 ideas of the best scientists pays off. A good scientist knows when to dump a bad idea.

Throwing more money at a problem does not always produce a solution. We suffer a lot from what Zen masters call the "Monkey Mind." I, and Lewis Thomas, call it the "Toy Syndrome." Scientists, being human can succumb to a fascination with the latest equipment and ideas and not be aware of it. When an idea or method is not fruitful, should it be dumped, or not?

So where are you in your research project? Are you a Basic Research Scientist or an Applied Research Scientist? Or Both? Are you up a blind alley, or ready for the "big payoff?"