The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editor is an example of breakthroughs in basic research.

Basic research = curiosity and freedom?

Svenska 2019-05-15

Basic research is about finding new knowledge, but the concept has several definitions, and the approach differs between different scientific fields. Mats Benner, professor of research policy, explains what basic research is, and why so few researchers stretch their wings these days.

“Basic research investigates the frontiers of our knowledge. It investigates things we didn’t know that we didn’t know, and provides a knowledge foundation to be used in situations that we cannot foresee today. Basic research is of vital importance, quite simply, but despite this it doesn’t have an exact definition.”

So says Mats Benner, Professor of Research Policy at the Department of Business Administration at Lund University. He explains that there are instead a couple of different ways of describing basic research:

“One way of defining basic research is that it is ‘research without preconceptions’, also known as ‘blue skye research’. That means when researchers ask questions that neither the context, normal expectations, norms or any principal indicates. Another popular, but slightly controversial definition is ‘research not aimed at any application’. This means that the researcher does the research without considering what it may be used for, and seeks knowledge just for knowledge’s sake.”

‘Curiosity-driven research’ is the third definition according to Mats Benner, and it is related to the other definitions.

“Here, the meaning is that it is the researcher’s own curiosity that is the prime driver of the research. The motivation comes from inside, and not from outside.”

The fourth way of describing basic research is to call it ‘frontier research’. This means that the researcher is experimenting, claims to have discovered something new, and challenges existing knowledge.

“At the same time, the fact that it is frontier research means that basic research gets it wrong sometimes. It may receive a lot of attention when it is presented, but can sometimes later turn out to be incorrect,” says Mats Benner.

Cheap and couch-bound research

It was only after World War II that people first started to talk about different types of research, and basic research was then described as “cheap research”.

“The prestigious work was in experimental and applied research, which required expensive equipment, but for basic research you often only needed a couch, a piece of paper and a pen.

Nowadays, basic research is increasingly linked to advanced infrastructure, it is no longer so cheap, and there are no firewalls between basic research and applied research”

“Physics is often highlighted as the most typical area of basic research, with esoteric research that is difficult to direct, but nowadays there is a lot of communication between theoretic physicists and experimentalists. The division into couch-bound basic research and apparatus-bound applied research no longer holds.”

Today, basic research within natural sciences and medicine can for example be about explaining why blood clots arise, or what cell division processes give rise to cancer.

“Here, there is a feature of being in competition with other groups, of having to discover new phenomena and processes that were unknown. You can make rapid discoveries and experience large breakthroughs, known as ‘eureka moments’. The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editor is a good example of breakthroughs in basic research.”

Changing perspectives in humanities

In humanities and social sciences, basic research does not give rise to any rapid or sudden discoveries.

“In these subjects, there are few regularities to discover, and basic research takes longer. After all, the research is usually about phenomena that human hands or human relations have created. For example, I believe it will take at least five to ten years for politics researchers to find out why government formation in Sweden is now such a long drawn-out business,” says Mats Benner.

According to him, basic research in humanities and social sciences is often about addressing existing material in new ways, of turning the perspective around and in that way discovering things no-one else has seen before.

“One well-known example is the ‘Weibull school’ in Lund, in the 1930s and 40s. The Weibull school consisted of historians who put aside the old way of writing history, where royalty was noble and wise and had an elevated sense of nationhood. The Weibull school showed that royalty often were selfish and slightly mean ordinary persons, who acted out of narrow interests. History changed from being a romantic pastiche to becoming more realistic.”

Other basic research has abandoned the kings and placed production and bureaucrats in focus when studying old material. With ‘gender glasses’ on, you can also discover much that is new.

“Another example of basic research is when the philosopher Michel Foucault investigated normality in the 1950s and 60s by studying what was perceived as non-normal. By studying what a mental hospital is, you obtained a picture of society as a whole.”

Divergence from originality

Mats Benner feels that politicians are very articulate when talking about applied research, but vague when talking about basic research. It is celebrated, but still becomes something of a political residual item.

“In the research community, people are aware of the expectation that research must be of benefit. It is of course also reasonable to expect it to contribute to solving major societal challenges, such as deadly diseases, climate change and new materials. But the risk is that we only investigate ‘known unknowns’, and not the ‘unknown unknowns’. A society that only does what we already do, but in a better way, is of course heading for oblivion in the long term. We need originality.”

Mats Benner thinks that there has been a long-term shift from originality to quality.

“Seventy years ago, we rewarded research that made people sit up straight. Researches were allowed to work as they liked, with almost unlimited trust. Now the focus is on quality instead, which often becomes synonymous with what the researchers that dominate the field consider to be right.”

According to Mats Benner, it is clear from applications to funding bodies such as the Swedish Research Council and the Wallenberg Foundations that researchers have adapted themselves to current expectations.

“Even when you ask researchers to take risks, to be childish and submit ideas rather than complete concepts, you notice that they are impregnated with the new view of what research is. They want to be sure their applications are not rejected because they are not believable, that their CVs are not sufficiently impressive. This is a real policy challenge. In really ground-breaking research, the researchers can come from nowhere. It’s about daring to let go.”

Text: Eva Annell