20 February 2013

What is Basic Research?

Basic research is a political symbol. What is a "political symbol"? I explain the notion of a political symbol in my recent paper on basic research (here in PDF):
Elder and Cobb (1983) define a symbol as: ‘‘any object used by human beings to index meanings that are not inherent in, nor discernible from, the object itself.’’ They continue:
Literally anything can be a symbol: a word or a phrase, a gesture or an event, a person, a place, or a thing. An object becomes a symbol when people endow it with meaning value or significance.
In his classic essay, Sapir (1934) distinguishes two types of symbols, referential and condensational. Referential symbols are ‘‘economical devices for purposes of reference.’’ So each of the following is an example of a referential symbol - @, ?, &, Z, WORD, ;-). A second type of symbol distinguished by Sapir is one that carries with it ‘‘emotional tension in conscious or unconscious form.’’ Examples of such symbols would include 9/11, a swastika, the American flag, and your name. Sapir asserts that ‘‘society is peculiarly subject to the influence of symbols in such emotionally charged fields as religion and politics.’’

Lasswell et al. (1952) define ‘‘key political symbols’’ as those which occur ‘‘in the flow of political statements,’’ and distinguish three types: symbols of identification (referring to people and groups), symbols of demand (referring to preferences and volitions) and symbols of expectation (referring to assumptions of fact).
Basic research serves as a symbol of identification, demand and expectation (see the paper for discussion, but I am sure that you can think of many examples). Its plasticity means that it fulfills multiple roles simultaneously, as shown in the following table (from this essay in PDF).

So basic research is no one thing, and as such it can be fruitlessto argue over its exact meaning. Similarly,other political symbols -- 9/11, the American flag, a swastika -- carry with them many meanings, some contradictory and irreconcilable.

In the politics of science "basic research" -- and its variants in use today such as fundamental research and transformative research -- allow scientists to claim to be following their curiosity wherever it may lead, while policy makers can claim something quite different, namely that funding such work is "basic" or "fundamental" to economic growth and other societal benefits. The agreement to carry contradictory definitions at once is a key factor in the stability of post-World War II science policy (and how we got the linear model). However, as budgets get tighter and the public demands accountability and results that stability has shown signs of strain.

The popularization of "basic research" via Vannevar Bush's seminal 1945 report Science--The Endless Frontier was no accident. Again quoting from my paper:
Bush explained that he made an explicit decision to use the phrase ‘‘basic research’’ because of its malleability in political discourse. Bush wrote in his memoirs of this explicit decision (Bush 1970):
To persuade the Congress of the pragmatically inclined United States to establish a strong organization to support fundamental research would seem to be one of the minor miracles… When talking matters over with some of these [people on Capitol Hill], it was well to avoid the word fundamental and to use basic instead.
Bush’s semiotic innovation is well grounded in political theory. Lasswell (1969) observes ‘‘ambiguity is an aid to concerted action.’’ He continues, ‘‘A high degree of generality is essential to popular appeal; symbols must be sufficiently vague to enable the individual to transfer his private loves and hates and hopes and fears to the slogans and catchwords of the movement.’’
So what is "basic research"?

It is motherhood, apple pie and all that is good. It is, as Brian Cox would say, axiomatically a good thing. As such, "basic research" as a political symbol has proven to be a big obstacle to science policy research. After all, why question something that is axiomatically good? What are you, anti-science? Further, the inherent virtue of basic research means that precise knowledge of mechanisms of that goodness are not needed.

If decisions about science and utilizing science are to be systematically evaluated and refined, it will be necessary to move beyond political symbols. But political symbols, obviously, are powerful things.


  1. Basic research is a job condition for academics. It is the reason that we put up with mediocre pay, students and administrators.

  2. It's supposed to be about people: men, women, and their children; their dignity and lives. The privilege enjoyed in transcending the mundaneness of reality should be purchased with disposable income. Perhaps we need a budget, address monetary and asset inflation, and rely less on axiomatic arguments with decreasing opportunities for accountability.

    ambiguity is an aid to concerted action

    The law of large numbers. The nature of our universe, and some human arguments, favors a stochastic model.

  3. Richard,

    Do you believe that "applied" research would be any less fun? I always enjoyed the appreciation of people who found my research helpful to solving their problems.

  4. Quoting Brito Cruz and Chaimovich, in their contribution to the UNESCO Science Report 2010 (http://quipronat.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/unesco-brazil-brito-chaimovitsch.pdf):

    “Understanding the classics of literature and appreciating nature and art are part of what makes us human. Studying these and an infinite number of other questions enriches us. This alone would be reason enough to use taxpayer money to find science-based answers – even incomplete ones – to fundamental questions and thereby improve our knowledge of the Universe and humankind.”

  5. Understanding the classics of literature and appreciating nature and art are part of what makes us human.

    We were human long before we had literature.

    I would suggest that more people follow football worldwide (including Roger of course) than follow literature. So why is love of football not one of the things that "make us human"? Elite gate-keeping, perhaps?

    We could rid the world utterly of all pure science, literature and art and still remain totally human. Indeed most people manage it with ease (and can't wait to leave it behind when forced into it at school).

  6. Mark,

    The statement by Brito Cruz and Chaimovich did not say that there were not humans before the advent of literature, or either that sports do not make us human. It says that the understanding of the Arts and of Nature are part of what makes us humans. The bias of elite gate-keeping is yours.

  7. I suspect it might have been the success of the Manhattan Project that persuaded politicians of the value of basic research.

    President Johnson built his earlier career on the space programme. To control space was seen as essential to controlling the planet.

    U.S. military's secret mini-shuttle lifts off from Florida (Dec 11, 2012)


    In Britain, there was an organisation dedicated to publicising computing science careers that had no military connections because they were hard to find.

    I was seriously pursued to work on a top secret military research project in Glasgow (1985). It was an implanted chip to detect radiation on the battlefield.

    I imagined it having an on board audio message. 'Her Majesty the Queen would like to thank you for giving your life for your country. You have 20 minutes to live. Goodbye'.

  8. 3. @Sharon
    Applied research is a lot of fun, unless there is a client with demands and restrictions.

  9. Where's the beef? Without a specific context or presenting issue, I do not see the point of the semantic analysis. Sure "basic research" has a range of symbolic associations but so what? The validity or relevance of any of those associations will come from the specific dialogues where it is used. Richard Tol's initial comment certainly suggests a very different context than an NSF submission for funding.... My guess is that the abstract search for a new and improved substitute for the term for use in Science Policy discussions will be largely dictated by a greater relative potency of any emergent term in the here and now when compared with the ecumenical notion of basic research. I suspect that the term basic research gained momentum courtesy of its descriptive accuracy and relevance to research into fundamental particles. Finding a successful replacement, regardless of need, will be very difficult but I have complete faith in the readiness of governmental bureaucrats and bureacratically inclined academics to try to come up with a politically acceptable expression or acronym.

  10. Bernie-
    I too would like it if Roger would just come out and state what exactly he is trying to accomplish with these analyses. What exactly is the argument?

  11. Richard:

    That's why it's called 'work' and not 'happy fun time'. Why should you be any different?

  12. I love how a post talking about basic research is getting demands from people, having invested time in reading it, demanding to know its goals or immediate point :)

  13. TLITB:
    Yep, the potential for irony struck me as well but I dismissed it as shallow reasoning. Are you suggesting that basic research is to be defined in part by not having a purpose?

  14. @13. bernie said...
    "Are you suggesting that basic research is to be defined in part by not having a purpose?"

    Yep - in part I think. Or you do you have all the parts laid out and explained? Let us know!

    I don't know all the parts myself; maybe BR is defined in part by shallow reasoning too? In part ;)

    If so then I think it would be essential that we cater for people who are willing to engage in shallow reasoning when most others have a preference for deep reasoning ;)

  15. How about one more discordant definition for the mix? I'd argue the US stopped entirely doing basic research around 1995. Nowadays, an NIH proposal needs to be tied to some 'disease state', and they're actually quite serious about it; in the old days you could mention some random vague connection to a disease and still propose doing something very fundamental. Now you can't get away with that. NSF wants a 'broader impact' statement discussing how your proposal will cure various societal ills. DoE and DoD are totally applied research. The result is that any fundamental research you do has to be piggy backed on an ostensibly applied research proposal, and the level of ostensibility is quite high.

    On the other hand, I was just reading a biography of J Willard Gibbs, whom Einstein descried as 'the greatest American mind'. Not only was his research not funded, but at the beginning of his career Yale didn't even pay him a salary as professor of mathematical physics. It's only when Johns Hopkins tried to poach him away with a $3K a year offer (big money for the mid/late 19th century) that Yale begrudgingly ponied up $2K a year.

  16. It says that the understanding of the Arts and of Nature are part of what makes us humans.

    I know what it says. It is, however, mostly wrong.

    The bit that is true is trite: art is part of what makes us human. So is love of football. Or love of slightly bitter drinks with alcohol in them.

    Stretching to say that "basic research" is a fundamental human need is ridiculous. Socrates, Plato, Confucious, Buddha all managed to be pretty much human before the advent of any person who would identify as a scientist.

    What art and science have in common is that they are, arbitrarily, determined by our current Western elite to be high prestige. Judging by salaries paid, to the average person, football is at least as valuable.

    Roger's point stands: people will outline arguments to suggest that "basic research" should be heavily funded that rely mostly on pushing emotional buttons, not rational ones.

  17. Right Wing Professor, in my field people are supposed to do work that is valuable in solving problems.. but guess what? The value is judged by...other scientists!

    We almost never have real, down to earth, discussions between researchers and practitioners about whether a specific project will actually be useful. So the utilit is what you might call an "unsubstantiated knowledge claim."

  18. Mark:
    Thanks for bringing me back to Roger's concluding point.
    I guess my confusion with the piece is that what I take to be Roger’s main point – summarized in the last couple of sentences of his post – is obvious. I do not see the relevance of the evolution of the term “basic research” nor its use as a symbol. For me it detracts from Roger’s main point and plays into the vagueness and emptiness of Cox's assertion. When we need to make funding decisions because of constrained resources, the absence of a common yardstick (or an agreed upon process for creating one) means that these funding decisions will be based purely on politics - national, institutional, personal or all three - and emotion. Kenneth Arrow made the same point many years ago with his Impossibility Theorem.
    The problem I have with Cox’s statement is that he ignores that there are constrained resources and/or is claiming that there is no need to make choices among competing activities or competing "axiomatically good things". Cox is arguing for no limits on funding for his axiomatically good thing by making a presumptive close. He therefore can ignore all the tough choices that need to be made and the difficult task of developing yardsticks to compare his axiomatically good things.

  19. Literature is basic while football is applied, because while you can make literature about football, you can't make football about literature. Or at least, if you did, you would have invented a new way to play football, one for which you would likely be eligible for many grants.

    Also, those four definitions above are actually pretty close together. I can't distinguish the "motive" and "goal" definitions, and it isn't much of a stretch to think that a motive/goal would determine the standard of accountability, with all of those determining the product. It would appear that "basic research" is about as well defined as anything else anyone talks about in either politics or economics.

    The reason that this is contentious is simple. We need to set priorities for funding research--just like everything else that either the public or the market funds. But it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to determine the value of research into the unknown. We must know what we cannot know!

    We cannot know beforehand how long our search will take us (in the case of mathematics/computer science we are strictly prevented by the Halting Problem from knowing this) and it is difficult to know, in advance, how we will apply any answers we discover.

    So we're in an inescapable dilemma--we must prioritize, but we have no foolproof way to do so--or even to select which system we should use to prioritize. But that doesn't mean that our decisions are random--people have intuitions about which areas of research will be most fruitful.

    The best response I can see is diversity--let us fund according to a diverse mixture of intuitions, rather than try to find a single econometric system that (impossibly) tries to objectively measure the value of all research. The government will have some priorities--e.g. medicine, energy, defense. The community of researchers will themselves have priorities--not just the hard sciences, but broader things like philosophy and literature. Since we don't know in advance how much utility a particular line of research will yield, and pursuing only those with quantifiable gains would not optimize utility, there will always be a contentious clash of intuitions. Hard to define notions of "science" and "depth" are very likely to be part of those intuitions--but by no means should they be insulated from outside critiques!

    It is very likely (though not certain), that there is some fundamental knowledge we are lacking that prevents us from building artificial intelligence, for example. Building bigger computers might not be enough to achieve truly intelligent machines. Where we would find that remaining knowledge--if it even even exists--is anyone's guess. Some of it is probably hiding in the "softer" sciences! Finding it might mean we could achieve the "Singularity"--which could yield nearly unimaginable utility, or utter catastrophe. Demanding "systematic evaluation and refinement" might very well blind you the most significant benefits--and costs.