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Basic vs. Applied Research 精选

已有 13336 次阅读 2009-9-10 21:15 |系统分类:教学心得|关键词:basic research, knowledge based

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An unending and unresolved discussion among concerned citizens and scientists is the support for basic research. A couple of readers of my recent blog articles also raised this issue with me. I don’t pretend that I have a perfect solution for this problem, but merely respond here with my personal observations.
1.       One reason citizens and governments support basic research is the “Serendipity” factor. The history of science is full of examples where seemingly useless theory turns out to be crucial in applications later on. Einstein’s theory of relativity surely does not seem to affect any practical things we do, particularly at the time of its invention. But without it, our ubiquitous GPS system found in modern autos would not be possible (see http://www.sciencenet.cn/m/user_content.aspx?id=247269 ). Furthermore, the communication satellites used in the GPS was first proposed in science fiction literature by Arthur C. Clarke who also famously said New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!” Basic research often passes through similar stages concerning whether or not it represents public money well spent.
2.       Basic research can be problem-driven. Especially in academia and universities, basic research can be supported by national goals or society wishes. Note problem-driven is different from applied. Industrial research is applied and aimed at produce products and profits for the company.
3.       Basic research can also be methodology oriented, e.g., the theory of automatic control and optimization. Such effort clearly can be justified on economic grounds
4.       Society and government support Arts and Music. These efforts do not benefit people in a material way, nor do they benefit all people. But no one would argue against the notion that a civilization without Art and Music will be a lifeless and dull existence indeed. Basic research holds the same kind of inspiration and beauty.
5.       Not every bit of basic research needs to be an invention or discovery. Much effort in basic research deal with the codification and simplification of knowledge. Without such efforts, human beings cannot possibly deal with the expansion and accumulation of knowledge through the ages.
6.       Chinese culture is heavily experience based rather than knowledge based. Medicine is one example that comes to mind. It is more a matter of 知其然 and not so much 知其所以然. Since experience must be based on reality, I submit in the Chinese collective conscience there is a preference for “applied” or applications.
7.       Even accepting the desirability of basic research, there is the question of “How Much?”. After all, it is mostly public money we are spending to do it. This question of course does not have a simple answer. In a democratic society as opposed to a dictatorship, it is an issue of supply and demand, public policy, culture, and general education level of the populace. Take the example of Western (or Chinese) opera. This used to be a popular art form for the general public before the days of movies, radio, broadcast, cable, and satellite, television. But nowadays it is supported largely by rich patrons, foundations, and the educated elite. The amount of funds for and what kinds of basic research in general should also follow the complex interactions of the market and society.
8.       Lastly, it is the responsibility of scientists themselves to communicate the needs for and benefits of basic research to the public. By and large, scientists do a relatively poor job in this regard. Some arrogant scientists even look down at any popularization effort and deem such endeavor to be beneath them. They are the equivalent of the high priests of old religion and cults (the less the public understand, the better. Mystery let me kept my position and power). My past blog articles clearly demonstrates that I do not agree with this view.
The best defense for democracy is an educated public. One of the main purposes of platform such as ScienceNet is to educate and provide a forum for the civilized discussion of the history, administration, support, and understanding of science and technology but not a place for quarrels and shouting down others. Long may she live and prosper.


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