The practical benefits of impractical research

Group of Eight | 19 September 2013

Today’s eccentric can become tomorrow’s Nobel Prize winner

With the Coalition government intending to redirect funding from so-called “ridiculous research“, it’s worth re-visiting this item from 30 April 2013 on the practical value of impractical research – and the contribution  to the wellbeing of communities of research in the humanities and social sciences.


A blood test for Alzheimer’s one step closer

In  one of its regular policy notes, the Group of Eight acknowledges the value of applied research, “the more tactical, short term research intended to realise already identified market and other opportunities”. It’s sometimes argued that, with pressures on public budgets, if governments invest specifically in research designed to produce immediately useful outcomes, it would ensure a higher return on government investment.We witness the life enhancing outcomes of practically oriented research all the time (see Life changing (1): Epilepsy and (2): Alzheimer’s). But such research often has its origins in “curiosity – led research”, extending over many years and which began with no specific outcome in view.

Moreover, the prospectivity of a research project to produce relatively short term applications can actually serve as an argument against substantial public funding for such a project:

… by definition, research is the process of discovering something we do not already know. The more definite we can be about the research outcome when we start the research, the more trivial the research and the weaker the arguments for government support. …it is not the role of government to fund or perform research that business needs for itself and which does not involve a significant risk.

Equally the value of pure (“blue sky” or “curiosity led”) research, despite its imprecise and seemingly impractical goals , is that it often leads to many and varied applications which are as far reaching in their implications as they are unexpected.

It is an important and profound truth that the people who performed the research that led to the knowledge and understanding that underpin much modern technology could never have even imagined how their findings would have impact. Early experimenters on electricity, atomic structure and magnetism were not trying to produce the lasers, computers, smart phones and countless other devices that their findings made possible. Researchers interested in the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei were not trying to develop medical imaging equipment – but MRI scanners depend on the work they performed. Mathematicians studying prime numbers were not trying to support safe internet banking, but their work has done just that. The route between basic research and impact is often long, complex and surprising. It is not easy to predict or to manage but it is fundamental to technological and economic progress.

The paper also addresses (and debunks) a prevalent view that research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is more likely to improve national wellbeing than research into the humanities, arts or social sciences. Work in these has many applications not least in supporting the development of government policies, understanding issues such as land rights and mining, or in comprehending research and the pathways through which it contributes to national welfare.

We celebrate Isaac Newton for his basic research exploring the laws of motion or his studies of light or for the development of calculus, not for his applied endeavours in trying to turn lead into gold.

  • Where should governments invest their research funding?
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