Jeremy had a post on Monday musing on a propensity for researchers that start out doing basic research and end up mixing applied research in later in their careers. I think the core observation is, on average of course, not by individual, correct. And there were a lot of spirited explanations of why this is in the comments. His framing of a single trade-off dimension between basic and applied is extremely common, and embedded in the funding of many nations’s scientific agencies (e.g. in the US, NSF only funds basic research while the US Department of Agriculture funds applied research).
But I’ve always found that trade-off limiting. Among other things, it implies something cannot be both basic and applied, something which I reject (and Don S gave a pretty spirited rebuttal of in the comments as well). I have found the notion of two trade-off axes put forth by Donald Stokes, in his book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation to be a more useful framing (also see a decent summary of the book in Wikipedia).
Stoke’s two dimensions are:
- Quest for fundamental understanding – in ecology we would probably call this mechanism-related research.
- Considerations of use – is the research question chosen with awareness of its usefulness to society?
This leads to a 2×2 table with four quadrants (of which one quadrant is not populated, giving 3 types of research):
As you can see the research that has no consideration for use and no quest for fundamental understanding is considered uninteresting (and presumably nobody would fund it). The other three quadrants though are all valued, as evidenced by the famous scientists occupying them. This is not about whose research is most important.
- Bohr’s work on the basics of quantum mechanics and the structure of the atom is an example of fundamental research not considering use and would be called “basic” research by most (Stokes calls it pure basic research).
- Edison’s work inventing the lightbulb, the phonograph etc were all cutting edging and making strong use of science, but were not leading to new fundamental understanding (Stokes calls it pure applied research)
- Pasteur’s work on microbes leading to vaccinations, pasteurization and the germ theory of disease (Stokes calls it use-inspired basic research).
There are problems with this classification to be sure. Some research that is basic (Bohr quadrant) is also fundamental which, by my definition, means it is truly profoundly informative about how the world works and cannot help but have applications by later researchers even if it is not a goal of the original researcher while other basic research (also in Bohr quadrant) is perhaps more puzzle solving and exists primarily in the mind and doesn’t really tell us about the real world and may never lead to applied research (Jim Clark has argued that neutral theory of biodiversity is an example of this given that you never hear conservation biologists invoking neutral theory). I might arguing iterating through the dynamics of a system with 3 predators and one prey, 3 predators and two prey, 3 predators and 3 prey, etc might fall in this category too. Don S makes a nice distinction between basic and fundamental that I think is close to this idea. And I think that difference between fundamental basic research and non-fundamental (or puzzle) basic research matters. Society should fund fundamental research, but I’m not sure it should fund all basic research (although I stipulate it can be hard to tell the difference in advance sometimes). Or maybe this non-fundamental research belongs in the No/No box I called N/A? Maybe we do more of that kind of research than we think?
And use-inspired research covers a pretty broad spectrum from full-blown stakeholder engaged research on institutional boundaries to basic research cloaked in applicability language that is never really going to go past a basic-research-oriented journal. I think the social-institutional context of research (the degree to which stakeholders are involved and work is done in boundary organizations) probably should be a 3rd dimension (interesting question – can pure basic research be done in a stakeholder engaged way? or does this dimension only apply to considerations for use=yes research?)
But despite these shortcomings (no classification system is perfect), I do think moving from one dimension to two dimensions helps us avoid several false dichotomies.
I am curious what types of ecological research scientists see falling into the three quadrants. Remember all quadrants can have bad or insincere research, but good research in any quadrant is valued. So rating research as falling into one of the three quadrants is not a value judgment. So with that caveat, here are some examples of my interpretation:
- Bohr-quadrant (pure basic) – metacommunities, mechanisms driving species richness such as the latitudinal gradient, species abundance distributions, role of climate in determining distribution of a species
- Edison quadrant (pure applied) – estimating the population size or the role of temperature on a specific population, determining habitat requirements of a specific species, predicting (or studying how to increase) growth rates of a managed forest, PVA analysis of one species, niche modelling of one or a set of species, classifying species on the IUCN scale (i.e. endangered, threatened, etc)
- Pasteur (usage inspired) – global change ecology (estimating the impacts of humans on natural populations and ecosystems and understanding how and why these occur), general population biology, general nutrient cycling, Hanski’s very detailed spatially explicit metapopulation models, wildlife disease ecology, understanding extinction dynamics
What do you think? Do you find two dimensions an advance over one? Which quadrant would you put yourself into? Have I got the examples of the 3 quadrants as applied to ecology right?