Researchers’ curiosity and drive, developing new knowledge without any thought of what it might lead to, and knowledge as a goal in itself. These are ideas that are mentioned when Mats Ulfendahl is asked to describe basic research. He is a professor of experimental hearing research, chair of the Swedish Society for Medical Research and research director at Region Östergötland. Before that, he was a secretary general at the Swedish Research Council.
“Basic research often takes a ‘bottom-up approach’ – it is the researchers themselves who want answers to a certain question – while applied research often tends to be more ‘top-down’. A clear problem or a need exists, and you try to find a solution with the help of research,” says Mats Ulfendahl.
But you cannot equate between basic research and curiosity-driven research, says Karin Markides, who is Professor Emerita of Analytical Chemistry at Uppsala University, chair of the Government’s scientific council for sustainable development and a former director general of Vinnova. She wants to add one dimension.
“Basic research can be generated by factors other than just the individual researcher’s curiosity. The starting point can be a question that arises within the private sector, public sector or within academia itself. To solve the problem, you often have to dip into the unknown and develop new knowledge. Then you are doing basic research, but at the same time you have an identifiable challenge,” says Karin Markides.
Should not be opposed to each other
Karin Markides feels that basic research has a more unassailable position in many countries.
“In the circles I move in abroad, it goes without question that we need both basic research and applied research, but in Sweden we feel that we must nurture and protect basic research, and assert its value. This is a bit strange. After all, we are good at seeing how basic research and applied research interact when we award the Nobel prizes.”
Mats Ulfendahl also warns against putting basic research and applied research into opposing camps:
“They build on each other and are part of a continuum. My own research career started in pure basic research, where I wanted to find out how hearing cells work, and what happens when we hear a tone. If you know that, then you can more easily understand how hearing cells can be stimulated to hear, and how a hearing aid should be designed. We need good basic research for the applications to be good,” he says.
Show why research is needed
Being active in basic research, Mats Ulfendahl had contacts with both clinics and the patient organisation the Swedish Association of the Hearing Impaired, as he was part of a centre formation for hearing research at Karolinska Institutet.
“It was very valuable to me to see how my research could be used in treatments. At the same time, the centre formation opened up interfaces and opportunities, and placed our basic research into a societal perspective. You have to understand that society wants answers to certain questions,” says Mats Ulfendahl.
He recommends persons doing basic research to participate in societal debate and to share their knowledge.
“It is also easier to get funding if you can show in what circumstances the basic research can be of use.”
Strategic initiatives no obstacle
Strategic initiatives are often described as an obstacle to basic research. But Karin Markides does not believe that basic research is disadvantaged by specific initiatives in strategic research areas. Not as long as the goals of the initiatives are set at an overarching level.
“They mustn’t be too prescriptive, but if the direction is at the right level, government initiatives can make doing research into societal challenges attractive. Researchers with differing perspectives are attracted to the area, you join forces, and the result can be more undirected basic research,” she says.
When Karin Markides was Vice-Chancellor of Chalmers University of Technology, the university received funds from both the EU’s flagship programmes and from the Government’s initiative for strategic research areas for a major research initiative into graphene.
“The initiative into graphene meant that physicists, chemists and mathematicians at Chalmers started cooperating, as they had a joint overall goal, but also a mandate to work together. In this environment, new basic research arose spontaneously.”
A more humble attitude today
Someone who has been active within the research world for a long time is Göran Blomqvist, senior adviser and former MD of the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. He feels that the attitude towards basic research has changed over time.
“I can without doubt see a trend. Over the last few years, it has become acceptable and respectable to focus primarily on basic research, but in previous decades applied research was the most honoured and requested. There was then a stronger belief in linear connections, that you could formulate research tasks that would lead to new products, medicines and solutions to societal problems,” says Göran Blomqvist.
He thinks that the attitude is more humble today. It is now known that some questions can be answered relatively simply, while others require long-term and persevering efforts in international collaboration.
“It has been shown, not least by natural and medical scientists, how complicated the fundamental biological questions are, for example in terms of disease and ageing. Both politicians and those who work close to these questions in the business sector now understand more clearly that there are no shortcuts. I think that basic research has a strong position in the Swedish debate today.”
Rapid or unexpected applications
The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences funds research within these two subject areas. What they look for when assessing projects is scientific quality, not to what extent the results will have a practical use in society.
“Despite this, some of the results soon find a demand. For example, I know that the UN is very interested in what peace and conflict researchers at Uppsala University find out when they study human competition for water and other limited natural resources. The UN wants to use this knowledge to prevent conflicts.”
Other basic research can have unexpected applications at a later time.
“One example is the basic research that has long been carried out by linguists when it comes to the construction, grammar and pronunciation of language. This research has become valuable for producing things like automatic translations and synthetic speech.”
Sometimes, basic researchers themselves produce applications for their research. As an example, Göran Blomqvist mentions Åsa Wikforss, professor of philosophy at Stockholm University:
“Åsa Wikforss has been involved in the classical philosophical questions about how we obtain knowledge about the world around us, and how we can be sure about the observations we make. Now, she has turned this around and is disseminating information on how we can better resist fake news and counteract resistance to facts.”