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2.4: Basic and Applied Science

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    Is it valuable to pursue science for the sake of simply gaining knowledge, or does scientific knowledge only have worth if we can apply it to solving a specific problem or bettering our lives? This question focuses on the differences between two types of science: basic science and applied science.

    Basic science or “pure” science seeks to expand knowledge regardless of the short-term application of that knowledge. It is not focused on developing a product or a service of immediate public or commercial value. The immediate goal of basic science is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, though this does not mean that in the end it may not result in an application. Questions such as, "How have plants evolved to attract pollinators?" and "What factors determine which species will co-occur with each other?" fall under the scope of basic science (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)).

    A lagoon surrounded by a variety of plants, including grasses, shrubs, and trees.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Many different plant species are co-occurring (growing together) at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. Exploring which plants co-occur naturally falls under the scope of basic science. Image by Brisbane City Council (CC-BY).

    In contrast, applied science aims to use science to solve real-world problems, such as improving crop yield, find a cure for a particular disease, or save animals threatened by a natural disaster. In applied science, the problem is usually defined for the researcher.

    A layperson (nonscientist) may perceive applied science as “useful” and basic science as “useless”, posing the question, "What for?" to a scientist advocating knowledge acquisition. A careful look at the history of science, however, reveals that basic knowledge has resulted in many remarkable applications of great value. Many scientists think that a basic understanding of science is necessary before an application is developed; therefore, applied science relies on the results generated through basic science. Other scientists think that it is time to move on from basic science and instead to find solutions to actual problems. Both approaches are valid. It is true that there are problems that demand immediate attention; however, few solutions would be found without the help of the knowledge generated through basic science.

    One example of how basic and applied science can work together to solve practical problems occurred after the discovery of DNA structure led to an understanding of the molecular mechanisms governing DNA replication. Strands of DNA, unique in every human, are found in our cells, where they provide the instructions necessary for life. During DNA replication, new copies of DNA are made, shortly before a cell divides to form new cells. Understanding the mechanisms of DNA replication (through basic science) enabled scientists to develop laboratory techniques that are now used to identify genetic diseases, pinpoint individuals who were at a crime scene, and determine paternity (all examples of applied science). Without basic science, it is unlikely that applied science would exist.

    Another example of the link between basic and applied research is the Human Genome Project, a study in which each human chromosome was analyzed and mapped to determine the precise sequence of the DNA code and the exact location of each gene. (The gene is the basic unit of heredity; an individual’s complete collection of genes is his or her genome.) Other organisms have also been studied as part of this project to gain a better understanding of human chromosomes. The Human Genome Project (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)) relied on basic research carried out with non-human organisms and, later, with the human genome. An important end goal eventually became using the data for applied research seeking cures for genetic diseases.

    Outline of a person surrounded by a double helix. The words chemistry, biology, physics, ethics, informatics, and engineering circle the image.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): The Human Genome Project was a 13-year collaborative effort among researchers working in several different fields of science. The project was completed in 2003. (credit: the U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs)

    The discovery of penicillin, the first antibiotic, also originated in basic science. The mold Penicillium (figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)) contaminated petri dishes of bacteria and unexpectedly inhibited their growth. Read more about The Real Story behind Penicillin.

    A shallow dish with mold growing on it
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): The mold Penicillium growing on a petri dish. Image by Crulina 98 (CC-BY-SA).

    Ecological modeling, which is closely intertwined with the field of environmental science, is another example in which applied science closely relies on basic science. Ecological models are complex equations through which computers can predict the outcome of different decisions or scenarios based on existing data. For example, a forest manager might use a model to determine which pattern of tree removal will promote forest health and produce a steady, sustainable supply of timber. The data used to create the ecological model are collected through a combination of basic and applied studies.

    Attribution

    Modified by Melissa Ha from The Process of Science from Environmental Biology by Matthew R. Fisher (licensed under CC-BY)


    This page titled 2.4: Basic and Applied Science is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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