VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Fundamental Research and Applied Research: A continuum or a divide?

Labels are common and convenient in today’s society. For example, within the academic world, there are those who engage in “fundamental research” and those who engage in “applied research”. In reality, those forms of research are not two discrete labels or entities, but rather a continuum. It is (or should be) entirely appropriate and perhaps even encouraged to engage in research along the entirety of the fundamental-applied continuum. Yet, rarely are research norms and culture couched around embracing that perspective such that it comes across as if there is a long-standing and deep divide.

I am fortunate in that my research program spans the entirety of the fundamental-applied continuum. I use the word “fortunate” because I truly regard it as the best of both worlds. I have the ultimate in freedom of being able to engage in fundamental, discovery-oriented research to understand basic phenomena and mechanisms. Yet, I also have the fortune of being able to help government, industry, and other partners/stakeholders address real-world problems. My students and post-docs also benefit from training and thinking that embraces and celebrates both fundamental and applied research. They understand the short-game—the need for short-term pay-offs related to pressing applied questions—but also recognize the value in research that may take decades if ever to yield tangible direct benefit to society.

I feel that the more common narrative today within academia is that there is contempt for applied research rather than viewing it as an opportunity to complement or even enhances one’s fundamental research activities. If I only engaged in fundamental science I would likely be financially limited to 1 or 2 graduate students which would influence research productivity and thus career progression. Although the majority of my funding is from applied sources, that funding also allows me to engage in fundamental research that explores the basis for the problems that I am trying to resolve with my applied research. Roughly 50% of my research output is fundamentally oriented yet my direct funding (i.e., NSERC Discovery Grant) to fund that work is a small proportion of my overall research portfolio. To me it is never about one or the other—it is about both—and it is about seamless integration.

The recent federal Fundamental Science Review (i.e., Naylor Report) did an outstanding job of making a strong case for more investment in fundamental science which I support whole-heartedly. But, I also support continued investment in partnership research and identifying opportunities to integrate and celebrate both the fundamental and applied aspects of what we do.

I look forward to a day where working across the entirety of the fundamental-applied continuum is the norm. There is no need for competition nor to try and raise the profile of one by belittling the other. We seem to go through swings (influenced largely by changes in government) in the relative investment in fundamental or applied research when in reality both are foundational to our knowledge-based economy and the basis for effective, evidence-based public policy. Perhaps future generations of researchers will have the fortune of being exposed to the entire continuum of research modalities and in doing so will respect, embrace, and engage in research of all forms.

Steven Cooke is a professor and Canada Research Chair in the Institute of Environmental Science and the Department of Biology at Carleton University. The ideas presented here build on those presented here: Cooke, S.J. 2011. On the basic-applied continuum in ecology and evolution and a call to action – perspectives of an early career researcher in academia. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 4:37-39.

“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

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