Why can’t we just say what we think about basic research?

The second important flaw in the usual antithesis is that these two widespread and ancient modes of thinking about science, pure versus applied, have tended to displace and derogate a third way that combines aspects of the two. This third mode now deserves the attention of researchers and policymakers.—Holton and Sonnert

These two sentences capture for me what is wrong with much writing on basic research. This long-suffering third-mode, displaced and derogated by researchers and policymakers alike, was in fact advanced by Thomas Jefferson when he funded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Holton and Sonnert were surely after aware of this fact because they discussed it shortly after the passage above. Their catchy phrase for such work–Jeffersonian science–is even in the essay’s title.  Holton and Sonnert also acknowledge that defense and health science funding are “dramatic and successful examples” of Jeffersonian science. So what then are they saying? That even though the U.S. funded Jeffersonian science in the past, funds it today, and will fund it in the future…policymakers are still unaware of it?

And what did Lewis Branscomb mean when he insisted we should not “settle for a [basic/applied research] dichotomy” because Jeffersonian research is a “central element of a new model?” Branscomb too was surely aware that Jeffersonian research is not new and has existed since the times of, well, Jefferson. And how about Roger Pielke Jr.’s call for a “new understanding of how science serves national needs” and research that reflects the “broader scope of considerations relevant to practical problems.” Roger must also know that the U.S. has been doing as such for two hundred years now.

This lack of specificity carried over to their policy recommendations, and I was left wondering what exactly they wanted. Is it that we should spend less on basic and applied work but more on Jeffersonian? Or should we increase the amount spent on Jeffersonian while keeping the rest constant? Or perhaps basic and applied work should be mostly eliminated in favor of Jeffersonian?

I don’t mean to be too critical. I thoroughly enjoyed Lewis Branscomb’s talk at the 2010 AAAS annual meeting. I look forward to reading Holton’s “Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought.” And Roger Pielke has deeply influenced my thinking on science policy and politics. I continue to visit his blog every day. But I think in this case they weren’t as clear as they could have been.

From what I can tell, Branscomb et al. simply think Jeffersonian research is more meaningful and important than basic research and they want scientists to think so too. But for some reason they can’t just come out and say that. When it comes to this topic, being direct and to the point appears to be difficult. I think we can all learn from Jane Lubchenco’s 1998 address to AAAS:  “Urgent and unprecedented environmental and social changes challenge scientists to define a new social contract. This contract represents a commitment on the part of all scientists to devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day, in proportion to their importance, in exchange for public funding.” While I may not agree with her, at least I know what she thinks.


  1. I see this continued effort for a third way (which includes NSF’s Research According to National Needs), strategic research, targeted research, Pasteur’s Quadrant, etc. as of a kind with the troubles with the linear model (the one about science and technology development). We know what reality is, but we still talk in terms of the old language and the old terms. We still budget that way.

    In this particular example, the audience is as much researchers as policymakers. Yes, the government supports research that addresses specific national needs. But who gets tenure for conducting research that addresses specific national needs? There’s not necessarily a correlation between cutting-edge and targeted to national needs.

    1. Thanks for the comment as always. And it was good to have your input at the meeting tonight. I will respond in greater detail in a post. Writing up another one now, then will try to address this later on in the week!

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