28 November 2006

Terminology for Research (What is Basic Research?)

I have been working on some research into the analysis of science, engineering and technology funding policy in Ireland in the period 1996-2006. As part of this research I've done some work on the issues around terminology. Here's an extract from an internal report I've written that may be of some more general interest. The issues are informed by my experiences in the TSSG, where we conduct most of our research in Pasteur's Quadrant and in Edison's Quadrant.

Issues of terminology around the idea of "Basic Research" in Science, Engineering and Technology

Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) are related academic disciplines that address various parts of the innovation lifecycle where new ideas and theories are formed and (some of which) are applied in order to help solve real world problems. All three often use various types of mathematics as a tool, for example calculus and statistics. Science attempts to explain observed and unexplained phenomena, often creating mathematical models of observed phenomena, and using a scientific method to propose a hypothesis derived from a model that can be tested and thus acquire new supporting evidence for the model or a falsification of the hypothesis and thus the model. Technology and engineering are attempts at practical application of knowledge (often from science), usually involving the construction of artefacts such as physical products and software solutions. Often modern products combine physical and software components in one form or another (e.g. cars, TVs, computers).

Simplistically it could be said that scientists work on science; and that engineers work on technology; few academics are exclusively labelled technologists, usually an academic's background education will determine whether he or she is labelled a scientist (qualifications BSc, MSc, PhD) or an engineer (qualifications BEng, MEng, PhD). However, there is in practice a blurring of boundaries between science and engineering, and it quite normal for some scientists to become involved in the practical application of their discoveries arguably behaving as engineers. Similarly, in the process of developing technology engineers often need to explore new phenomena, and thus arguably behave as scientists.

When discussing science, engineering and technology research policy one is faced with an interesting situation. What starts off as a seemingly relatively well defined problem space quickly disintegrates into a morass of ambiguity and analogy. One of my previous assignments dealt in detail with one study that focused entirely on the meaning of the term "basic research" to researchers and to policy makers (Calvert, 2002).

The definitions of research and experimental development encapsulated in the Frascati Manual (OECD, 2002), have dominated formal documents addressing scientific research in most countries in the world from the first edition of the manual over forty years ago (OECD, 1963), and through a series of subsequent editions up to and including the sixth edition (OECD, 1970; OECD, 1976; OECD, 1981; OECD, 1994; OECD, 2002). Whilst the scope of the Frascati Manual is the measurement of the financial resources used for research and experimental development, its impact has been on the use of terminology in policy documents, terms of reference of funding bodies, and on the terminology used in the discussion of research and experimental development (R&D) in general. The basic definition of R&D in the current edition of the manual is:

"Research and experimental development (R&D) comprise creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications." (OECD, 2002, Par. 63)

The manual goes on to define three tiers of R&D activity, each with differing time horizons to potential exploitation: basic research, applied research and experimental development. Furthermore basic research is subcategorised into pure basic research and oriented basic research.

"Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view." (OECD, 2002, Par. 240)
"Oriented basic research may be distinguished from pure basic research as follows: + Pure basic research is carried out for the advancement of knowledge, without seeking long-term economic or social benefits or making any effort to apply the results to practical problems or to transfer the results to sectors responsible for their application. + Oriented basic research is carried out with the expectation that it will produce a broad base of knowledge likely to form the basis of the solution to recognised or expected, current or future problems or possibilities." (OECD, 2002, Par. 243)
"Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective." (OECD, 2002, Par. 245)
"Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on knowledge gained from research and practical experience, that is directed to producing new materials, products and devices; to installing new processes, systems and services; or to improving substantially those already produced or installed." (OECD, 2002, Par. 249)

Whilst these definitions have been fairly stable over the various editions of the manual, more recent versions have added text acknowledging the lack of clear boundaries between the seemingly separated types of research activity defined:

"There are many conceptual and operational problems associated with these categories. They seem to imply a sequence and a separation which rarely exist in reality. The three types of R&D may sometimes be carried out in the same centre by essentially the same staff. Moreover, there may be movement in both directions. When an R&D project is at the applied research/experimental development stage, for example, some funds may have to be spent on additional experimental or theoretical work in order to acquire more knowledge of the underlying foundations of relevant phenomena before further progress can be made. Moreover, some research projects may genuinely straddle categories. For instance, study of the variables affecting the educational attainment of children drawn from different social and ethnic groups may involve both basic and applied research." (OECD, 2002, Par. 251)

Similarly, the manual originally focused on engineering and the natural sciences, but more recent editions of the manual have addressed software (a new discipline that has emerged a major player in technology since the 1980s) and social sciences (an older discipline that is now recognised as essential for mapping the relationships between science and society, and of studying society itself) as well. Other areas, in particular in the humanities, are still not represented in the Frascati definitions. Essentially, as governments have pushed to fund these types of research, they have been retrofitted to be included in the definitions.

"In recent years, the desire for better information on R&D in service activities has been expressed. The basic definitions in this Manual were originally developed for manufacturing industry and research in the natural sciences and engineering. Specific problems therefore arise for applying them to service activities, which often involve software applications and research in the social sciences." (OECD, 2002, Par. 25)

Whether one agrees with this terminology or not, it has had a strong impact of how any debate about R&D has been framed in the past forty years. In particular, these are the definitions used when compiling statistics about research and experimental development spending in OECD countries, so any use of these statistics in support of an argument often also involves an implicit agreement with the terminology and definitions. Indeed the authors of the manual are consciously aware of its influence in this regard: "Furthermore, by providing internationally accepted definitions of R&D and classifications of its component activities, the Manual contributes to intergovernmental discussions on 'best practices' for science and technology policies." (OECD, 2002, p. 3).

More recently the work of Stokes (1997) on Pasteur's Quadrant has been very influential on policy especially in the USA. The principle Stokes espouses is that the two most common concepts used to define basic research should be treated as two separate axes defining four rather than two potential terms, allowing greater nuance and more precise usage. The two axes are the utility of research (basic = aimed at no use, applied = aimed at use) and the understanding of domain that the research seeks to evolve (basic = fundamental, applied = not fundamental) are used as two axes so that there are two binary responses on each axis:

A) Quest for fundamental understanding?
B) Considerations of use?

A=Yes B=No Pure basic research (Bohr's Quadrant)
A=Yes B=Yes Use-inspired basic research (Pasteur's Quadrant)
A=No B=Yes Pure applied research (Edison's Quadrant)
A=No B=No Taxonomies and other activities that help the discipline itself
Adapted from [Stokes, 1997, p. 73]

It is interesting that Frascati and the SFI in Ireland have used the term strategic oriented research that seems to map precisely to Pasteur's Quadrant - a basic research activity in terms of its fundamental nature but strategically targeted at some potential use.


Calvert, J (2002) Goodbye Blue Skies? The Concept of 'Basic Research' and its Role in a Changing Funding Environment University of Sussex, DPhil

OECD (1963) Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys of Research and Development: The Measurement of Scientific and Technical Activities, OECD: Paris.

OECD (1970) Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys of Research and Experimental Development: The Measurement of Scientific and Technical Activities, OECD: Paris.

OECD (1976), Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys of Research and Experimental Development: "Frascati Manual 1976", The Measurement of Scientific and Technical Activities Series, OECD: Paris.

OECD (1981) Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys of Research and Experimental Development: "Frascati Manual 1980", The Measurement of Scientific and Technical Activities Series, OECD: Paris.

OECD (1994) Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys of Research and Experimental Development, "Frascati Manual 1993", The Measurement of Scientific and Technological Activities Series, OECD: Paris.

OECD (2002) Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys of Research and Experimental Development, "Frascati Manual 2002", The Measurement of Scientific and Technological Activities Series, OECD: Paris.

Stokes, DE (1997) Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation Brookings Institution Press: Washington DC

Posted by mofoghlu at November 28, 2006 9:28 AM
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