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Home > Publications > ICSU Position Statements > The value of basic scientific research (Dec 2004)

The value of basic scientific research (Dec 2004)

Basic scientific research is defined as fundamental theoretical or experimental investigative research to advance knowledge without a specifically envisaged or immediately practical application. It is the quest for new knowledge and the exploration of the unknown. As such, basic science is sometimes naively perceived as an unnecessary luxury that can simply be replaced by applied research to more directly address immediate needs.

However the demarcation between basic research and applied research is not at all clear cut. In reality they are inextricably inter-twined. Most scientific research, whether in the academic world or in industry, is a hybrid of new knowledge generation and subsequent exploitation. Major innovation is rarely possible without prior generation of new knowledge founded on basic research. Strong scientific disciplines and strong collaboration between them are necessary both for the generation of new knowledge and its application. Retard basic research and inevitably innovation and application will be stifled.

New scientific knowledge is essential not only for fostering innovation and promoting economic development, but also for informing good policy development, and as a sound foundation for education and training. Notwithstanding, it is sometimes argued at a national level that investment in research should focus primarily, or even exclusively, on the use of existing information to develop applied solutions. Superficially at least, such an approach appears to be facilitated by the emergence of a global society, linked by internet and a continuous flow of information that anyone is able to access and use.

Whilst an exclusive focus on application may have some merit in the short-term, there are several reasons why neglecting basic research is seriously flawed in the longer-term:

  1. Basic and applied science are a continuum. They are inter-dependent. The integration of basic and applied research is crucial to problem-solving, innovation and product development.
  2. Knowledge is more than the information and data that might be provided via the internet; it is fundamentally a matter of cognitive capability, skills, training and learning. The exploitation and application of scientific information requires skilled scientists with a good understanding of the basic theories and practice of science. Successful transfer of scientific knowledge requires well-trained scientists at both ends of the exchange.
  3. Excessive dependency on scientific progress in other countries is rarely likely to lead to the resolution of local problems. Countries need to be able to generate their own scientific knowledge and adapt this to their own local context and needs.
  4. The practice of science is increasingly international and the research agenda is set by those who participate. A country with no basic scientific research capacity effectively excludes itself from having any real influence on the future directions of science.

As the move towards a global knowledge economy accelerates, the necessity of having a thriving scientific community to generate new knowledge and to exploit it, both in the academic world and industry, becomes irrefutable. Adequate public investment in basic science education and research is a critical factor under-pinning socio-economic development. All countries need to develop longterm sustainable strategies for investment in science. Support for basic science is not something that can be postponed or diminished when times are hard in the misplaced hope that applied research alone will provide a better return.

DNA – basic science, innovation and development inter-twined

It is over fifty years since the biologist James Watson and physicists Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA and revealed the secrets of inheritance and protein production. Working in University laboratories in Cambridge and London, they were driven solely by the quest for new knowledge. However, their work was the stimulus for a revolution in health diagnostics and therapies; for billions of dollars worth of innovation and the development of the biotechnology industry worldwide; for a huge leap forward in the understanding of the relationship between humankind and nature. The seminal publication, proposing a double-helical structure for DNA, stimulated scientists all over the world to test and refine this hypothesis; to exploit it to generate new insights and knowledge on biological systems and to apply this knowledge to develop applications. This continuous cycle of knowledge generation and enrichment, innovation and exploitation continues today to such an extent that national investment in research in molecular biology could almost be considered a proxy for economic health and development. A new era of genome sequencing has now been entered but, while the decoded human genome data is openly available to all, it is a safe prediction that those countries that have invested in basic science will be best equipped to reap its benefits.

December 2004

About this statement

This statement is endorsed by the Executive Board of the International Council for Science (ICSU, November, 2004). It is based on the work of an ad hoc ICSU Working Group, whose members were: Chair, J A de la Pena (mathematician, Mexico), G Berlucchi (medicine, Italy) A Boksenberg (astronomer, UK), N Moreau (chemist, France); C dos Remedios (biologist, Australia).

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