Does Basic Research Need to Have a Purpose?

The short answer: This question is click-bait and was written to incite reflexes rather than reflection. The long answer: The question is a red herring, because a researcher arguing that research shouldn’t have to have a purpose is actually complaining about society not seeing the value of their research as they do.

First of all, what is basic research? According to Wikipedia, channeling the NSF, basic research is the development of scientific theories. The complement is applied research, which is the use of established theories in solving practical problems. In other words, basic research is the same as research in general, and applied research is the use of research results. Basic research is the R and applied research is the D in R&D (research and development).

So, does research need to have a purpose?

When posed on Twitter, I noticed how practitioners were quick to jump in and claim that research doesn’t need to have a purpose. Some wrongly equated a broad notion of purpose with a narrow notion of commercial profit, but even those who didn’t do so supported some idea of research for research’s sake.

I challenge those who say that research doesn’t need to have a purpose to find a scientist who can’t articulate why they are doing the research they are doing. Any researcher worth their salt knows why. This is not so much to be ready to sell it to the next funder, but simply to give meaning to their work. And even if a researcher is just following their intuition, they are working towards identifying the meaning and value of their work as much as they are trying to do the actual research work. These are intertwined, simply because we are humans and seek meaning and purpose.

Of course, there is sloppy thinking, where researchers base their understanding of the relevance of their work on assumptions that have long become obsolete. But this is the outsider’s perspective, not the researcher’s.

So, when a researcher complains that there is not enough funding for basic research, they don’t mean this literally. What they are saying is that funders don’t agree with them on the value of their research or rank-order the research so low that no money is left for it. This can happen to the best of us and is not an absolute statement of value but a relative one. Just because you are out of sync with funders or society doesn’t mean science is under attack.

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