The eternal debate over basic vs. applied research has been getting some renewed attention in Canada lately. University of Calgary President Harvey Weingarten wrote recently in an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail that Canada has not reached the right balance between “curiosity-driven” and targeted research, saying the country “has no choice but to target more research funding to national priorities.”
He added that the identification of a set of Canadian research priorities in the federal government’s S&T strategy “was a critical step to move our country’s R&D system in the right direction.”
Just days earlier in the same newspaper, University of Toronto’s Nobel Prize winner John Polanyi defended with equal passion the importance of fundamental research. The kicker: “It is an abiding mystery why, having failed so definitively to pick winners in the marketplace for goods, governments have been empowered to pick winners in the far more subtle marketplace for ideas.”
The recent report by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council was somewhat agnostic on the basic vs. applied debate. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, the chair of the council, Howard Alper, did suggest – during the press conference to unveil the report – that an appropriate balance for funding is 70 percent allocated to “fundamental research based on excellence” and 30 percent targeted to research priorities.
I am intrigued by this, as I have never heard anyone suggest before what the basic-to-applied ratio for research should be. Is this 70:30 ratio a commonly agreed-upon metric within the scientific community? Dr. Alper did not indicate whether Canada was at or near this ratio.
Of course, the problem in this debate is how one defines and measures basic vs. applied research. Many in the scientific community talk about “targeted” research, but that is not necessarily the same as “applied” research, although neither should be confused with the sort of “blue-sky, wherever-it-takes-me” type of research that we generally refer to as “fundamental,” “basic” or “curiosity-driven.”
(Interestingly, a 2001 paper by Benoit Godin of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique notes that Canada did keep statistics on basic or “pure” research starting in the 1960s, but the attempt was abandoned by the late ’70s.)
What’s your take? Is the 70:30 ratio appropriate? Take a moment to answer our poll, below. And how should we go about defining basic vs. applied research?