The IT letter by Peter Gallagher and Emma Teeling reminds me of a small bit of bother I got into back in the early nineties. At the time, the Irish Research Scientists Association was pushing the basic research agenda and I wrote a letter to the Irish Times making a very gentle ‘criticism’ of their approach. I think they felt I was not ‘on message’ and was perhaps letting the side down.
I’ve absolutely nothing against basic research per se. Most of it is far more interesting than run-of-the-mill applied stuff. I’d much rather read an article on black holes than one on smart phones. The point I made actually related to the final sentence of Gallagher and Teeling’s letter: “Fundamental research is not a luxury item that should only be funded during good times, but forms the very basis for applied science and innovation, without which our smart economy will flounder”.
As someone whose formal training is in chemical engineering, I have always viewed this as a very simplistic view of the relationship between basic and applied research. Often, the flow of ideas is in the opposite direction, i.e., the need to solve practical problems reveals a lack of basic knowledge, opening up whole areas of basic research as a result. Basic and applied research then proceed together. The example I gave back in the nineties was of chemical engineers’ contribution to the thermodynamics of the liquid state, something that was driven by the very practical need to design distillation columns. I’m sure the physics community can quote lots of similar examples from late nineteen century physics, especially in areas like electromagnetism. No doubt synthetic chemists can point to lots of industrial and medical problems that drove new synthesis techniques.
My point is that just because a project is focused on a specific problem does not mean that the research is somehow derivative and won’t lead down entirely unanticipated, and perhaps fruitful, pathways.