Basic research

For the product, see Basic Research.
For a broader coverage related to this topic, see Research.

Basic research, also called pure research or fundamental research, is scientific research aimed to improve scientific theories for improved understanding or prediction of natural or other phenomena.[1] Applied research, in turn, uses scientific theories to develop technology or techniques to intervene and alter natural or other phenomena. Though often driven by curiosity,[2] basic research fuels applied science's innovations.[3] The two aims are often coordinated in research and development.

Although many discoveries have been serendipitous,[2] discovery science specifically seeks discoveries, and, along with theoretical science and experimental science, is now key to basic research and is sometimes expressly planned.[4]


Basic research advances fundamental knowledge about the world. It focuses on refuting or supporting theories that explain observed phenomena. Pure research is the source of most new scientific ideas and ways of thinking about the world. It can be exploratory, descriptive, or explanatory; however, explanatory research is the most common.[5]

Basic research generates new ideas, principles, and theories, which may not be immediately utilized but nonetheless form the basis of progress and development in different fields. Today's computers, for example, could not exist without research in pure mathematics conducted over a century ago, for which there was no known practical application at the time. Basic research rarely helps practitioners directly with their everyday concerns; nevertheless, it stimulates new ways of thinking that have the potential to revolutionize and dramatically improve how practitioners deal with a problem in the future.[5]

In the United States, basic research is funded mainly by federal government and done mainly at universities and institutes.[6] As government funding has diminished in the 2010s, however, private funding is increasingly important.[7]

Basic versus applied science

Applied science focuses on the development of technology and techniques. In contrast, basic science develops scientific knowledge and predictions, principally in natural sciences but also in other empirical sciences, which are used as the scientific foundation for applied science. Basic science develops and establishes information to predict phenomena and perhaps to understand nature, whereas applied science uses portions of basic science to develop interventions via technology or technique to alter events or outcomes.[8][9] Applied and basic sciences can interface closely in research and development.[10][11]

A distinction can be made between basic science and disciplines such as medicine and technology.[8][9][12][13][14] They can be grouped as STM (science, technology & medicine) or STS (science, technology & society). These groups are interrelated and influence each other,[15][16][17][18][19] although they may differ in the specifics such as methods and standards.[9][12][19][20]

The Nobel Prize mixes basic with applied sciences for its award in Physiology or Medicine. In contrast, the Royal Society of London awards distinguish natural science from applied science.[21]


"Basic science" or "fundamental science" may also refer to physics. In philosophy of science, the branches of science are often described such that fundamental physics is the foundation underlying the others, called special sciences, that rest upon and in principle are derivable from and reducible to fundamental physics.[22][23][24] In a conceived unity of science, the special sciences investigate domains whose entities and laws emerge from the domain of the idealized fundamental physics.[25] Basic science may also be used to refer to the natural sciences in general, as compared to the social sciences and applied sciences.[9][10][12][15][16][17]

Whereas fundamental physics seeks laws of universal regularity, special sciences usually include ceteris paribus laws, predictively accurate to high probability in "normal conditions" or with "all else equal", but having exceptions.[23] Although exceptionless, chemistry's laws were presumably reduced to fundamental physics—to quantum mechanics and then quantum electrodynamics[26][27] —and so chemistry, presumed to emerge, is a special science.[25] Bridging physical sciences to biological sciences via biochemistry, and influencing sciences generally, chemistry has been viewed as the central science.[28][29]

See also


  1. "What is basic research?" (PDF). National Science Foundation. Retrieved 2014-05-31.
  2. 1 2 "Curiosity creates cures: The value and impact of basic research Archived October 20, 2013, at the Wayback Machine., National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health.
  3. "ICSU position statement: The value of basic scientific research", International Council for Science, December 2004.
  4. Liz Karagianis - MIT Spectrum (21 April 2015). "How discovery science is reinventing the world - MIT News". MIT News.
  5. 1 2 "Research".
  6. Ganapati, Priya (2008-08-27). "Bell Labs kills fundamental physics research". Wired. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-28.
  7. William J. Broad (March 15, 2014). "Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing American science". New York Times. Retrieved December 26, 2014.
  8. 1 2 "Limited scope of science". & "Technology" in Bernard Davis (Mar 2000). "The scientist's world". Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. 64 (1): 1–12. doi:10.1128/MMBR.64.1.1-12.2000. PMC 98983Freely accessible. PMID 10704471.
  9. 1 2 3 4 James McCormick (2001). "Scientific medicine—fact of fiction? The contribution of science to medicine". Occasional Paper (Royal College of General Practitioners) (80): 3–6. PMC 2560978Freely accessible. PMID 19790950.
  10. 1 2 Gerard Piel, "Science and the next fifty years", § "Applied vs basic science", Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 1954 Jan;10(1):17–20, p 18.
  11. Ruth-Marie E Fincher, Paul M Wallach & W Scott Richardson, "Basic science right, not basic science lite: Medical education at a crossroad", Journal of General Internal Medicine, Nov 2009;24(11):1255–58, abstract: "Thoughtful changes in education provide the opportunity to improve understanding of fundamental sciences, the process of scientific inquiry, and translation of that knowledge to clinical practice".
  12. 1 2 3 Richard Smith (Mar 2006). "The trouble with medical journals". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 99 (3): 115–9. doi:10.1258/jrsm.99.3.115. PMC 1383755Freely accessible. PMID 16508048.
  13. Leon Eisenberg (Mar 1988). "Science in medicine: Too much or too little and too limited in scope?". American Journal of Medicine. 84 (3 Pt 1): 483–91. doi:10.1016/0002-9343(88)90270-7. PMID 3348249.
  14. J N Clarke; S Arnold; M Everest & K Whitfield (Jan 2007). "The paradoxical reliance on allopathic medicine and positivist science among skeptical audiences". Social Science & Medicine. 64 (1): 164–73. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.08.038. PMID 17045377.
  15. 1 2 Eric Holtzman (1981). "Science, philosophy, and society: Some recent books". International Journal of Health Services. 11 (1): 123–49. doi:10.2190/l5eu-e7pc-hxg6-euml. PMID 7016767.
  16. 1 2 P M Strong PM & K McPherson (1982). "Natural science and medicine: Social science and medicine: Some methodological controversies". Social Science & Medicine. 16 (6): 643–57. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(82)90454-3. PMID 7089600.
  17. 1 2 Lucien R Karhausen (2000). "Causation: The elusive grail of epidemiology". Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy. 3 (1): 59–67. doi:10.1023/A:1009970730507. PMID 11080970.
  18. K Bayertz & P Nevers (1998). "Biology as technology". Clio Medica. 48: 108–32. PMID 9646019.
  19. 1 2 John V Pickstone & Michael Worboys (Mar 2011). "Focus: Between and beyond 'histories of science' and 'histories of medicine'—introduction". Isis. 102 (1): 97–101. doi:10.1086/658658. PMID 21667777.
  20. "Medals, Awards & Prize lectures", The Royal Society website, accessed 22 Sep 2013.
  21. Wolfgang Spohn, The Laws of Belief: Ranking Theory and Its Philosophical Applications (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p 305.
  22. 1 2 Alexander Reutlinger, Gerhard Schurz & Andreas Hüttemann, "Ceteris paribus laws", sec 1.1 "Systematic introduction", in Edward N Zalta, ed, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2011 edn.
  23. Vítor Neves, ch 12 "Sciences as open systems—the case of economics", in Olga Pombo, Juan M Torres, John Symons & Shahid Rahman, eds, Special Sciences and the Unity of Science (Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer, 2012).
  24. 1 2 Anita Traninger, "Emergence as a model for the study of culture", pp 67–82, in Birgit Neumann & Ansgar Nünning, eds, Travelling Concepts for the Study of Culture (Berlin & Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), pp 70–71.
  25. Richard P Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, exp edn w/ new intro by A Zee (Princeton & London: Princeton University Press, 2006), p 5.
  26. "Figure 1: Contradictions lead to better theories". in Schwarz, John H (1998). "Recent developments in superstring theory". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 95 (6): 2750–7. doi:10.1073/pnas.95.6.2750. PMC 19640Freely accessible. PMID 9501161.
  27. Theodore E Brown, H Eugene LeMay et al., Chemistry: The Central Science, 12th edn (Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2012).
  28. Maria Burguete, ch 7 "History and philosophy of science: Towards a new epistemology", 7.3 "History of contemporary chemistry", in Maria Burguete & Liu Lam, eds, Science Matters: Humanities As Complex Systems (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2008), p 139: "Considering the extent that chemical methodology has contributed to other disciplines, it is tempting to take the charge that chemistry is in danger of losing its identity, or, to turn it around and proclaim instead that chemistry—today more than ever before—is the 'central science' ".

Further reading

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