Editor’s note: Frank Leibfarth is about to embark on a postdoc position and is trying to make his way through the academic maze. Find him contributing to the Sceptical Chymist or continue the conversation on Twitter@Frank_Leibfarth.
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I stand at the cusp of a thrilling and intimidating time in the life of a young scientist. I recently defended my dissertation and I am embarking on a postdoc with the intention to join the academic ranks. The next few years, especially the beginning of an assistant professorship, will be the closest to true intellectual freedom that most scientists have in their career; perhaps the only time to imagine and pursue risky ideas with money untied to the requirements of funding agencies or companies. This is my opportunity to take chances, to think big, to solve pressing problems or, at a minimum, to fail spectacularly while trying.
We, as scientists, possess a specialized and rare set of skills. Few people can say that their training, used correctly, can fundamentally better the human condition. Young scientists not only have the privilege of being in this position, but also the freedom to choose our path forward. But how does one conceive truly innovative ideas, those upon which to build your life’s work, in a relative vacuum? This depends on how we approach and classify scientific research.
Since the creation of the U.S. National Science Foundation on the recommendation and philosophy of Dr Vannevar Bush, most of the developed world has classified scientific inquiry as either ‘basic’ research, purely curiosity-driven work meant to develop general knowledge, or ‘applied’ research, performed in the service of some immediate goal. This model, which permeates how funding agencies allocate money and how popular culture perceives science, presumes the creativity of basic science will be lost if constrained by premature thoughts of practicality. Personally, this one-way street — with basic science and its eventual application at two ends of a linear spectrum ¬— feels limiting.
Donald Stokes agrees. In his book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation, he advocates that understanding and use are better considered in two-dimensions, with the vertical axis representing the quest for fundamental understanding and the horizontal axis referring to the consideration for use. By separating this plot into four quadrants, Stokes asserts that the top left quadrant represents the classic notion of basic research and the bottom right quadrant refers to purely applied research. Stokes gives the examples of Niels Bohr and Thomas Edison as scientists whom occupy these two quadrants, respectively.
The true innovation in Stokes’s classification is the top right quadrant, which he refers to as Louis Pasteur’s quadrant. Pasteur, as Stokes notes, never undertook a study that was not applied; his fundamental contributions to science, however, spawned the entire field of microbiology and forever changed the way we view the cause and prevention of disease. Pasteur’s quadrant illuminates a path where applied goals are not inherently opposed with scientific creativity and rigour. Understanding and being open to this use-inspired basic research has been inspiring for me. It has enabled me to move away from the either/or logic of basic-versus-applied research and think ‘big’ by focusing ‘small’. Choosing a fundamentally new and/or novel phenomenon and uncovering the basic science underlying it can set the stage for translating that knowledge into application.
Use-inspired basic research is also a powerful approach in policy considerations. As austerity becomes the economic policy of choice in countries throughout the world, investments in science are being scrutinized for their ability to maintain a nation’s competitive edge in a global economy (examples here and here). The belief that curiosity-driven inquiry can itself guarantee advancements in technology is sometimes difficult to justify, but mission-oriented research inspired by societal need both protects fundamental science and advances vital economic and social interests.
Like most scientists in my position, I am both excited and uneasy about my impending intellectual freedom. The concept of Pasteur’s quadrant, however, tears down many long-held assumptions about basic and applied research and assures me that I can do both rigorous and relevant science.