When discussing research methodology, it is important to distinguish between applied and basic research. Applied research examines a specific set of circumstances, and its ultimate goal is relating the results to a particular situation. That is, applied research uses the data directly for real world application.
In applied research “[t]he goal is to predict a specific behavior in a very specific setting,” says Keith Stanovich, cognitive scientist and author of How To Think Straight About Psychology (2007, p.106).
Basic research focuses on fundamental principles and testing theories. Mistakenly, it is sometimes implied that basic research doesn’t have practical applications. The history of science is replete with examples of basic research leading to real world applications. Just because a research study is not directed at specific set of circumstances does not mean that in the future the finding from that study will not be applied to a specific event or events.
Practical Implications of Basic Research
When cell phones were first introduced, cognitive scientists began to worry about whether their use while driving could lead to increased numbers of automobile accidents. The worry was not because drivers would take one hand off the wheel when using the phone, but because of the attention requirements of talking on the phone. These predictions were derived from basic theories on limited attention capacities.
Classical and operant condition principles were developed mostly from experimenting on non-human subjects. Since the discovery of these principles, they have been applied to a wide array of human problems, such as teaching declarative knowledge, treating autistic children, treating overweight individuals, and treating phobias, just to name a few.
Other examples of basic research with practical implications include:
- Discovery of x-rays which led to studying bone fractures
- Discovery of chlorpromazine, a drug used in the treatment of schizophrenia
- Discovery of dark adaptation which helped establish a theory of basic visual processes that led to applications in treating night blindness and reading x-rays
- Psychological studies of decision making that led to important finding in the fields of education, medicine, and economics
- Findings from psychology applied in various contexts within the legal system: evidence evaluation, eyewitness testimony, validity of recovered memories, and so on
There are many more examples of basic theories leading to practical applications.
Applied Research vs. Basic Research
Both applied and basic research are important to the scientific process. It is a mistake to pit them against each other. In conclusion, I will leave you with the words of Keith Stanovich:
[I]t is probably a mistake to view the basic-versus-applied distinction solely in terms of whether a study has practical applications, because this difference often simply boils down to a matter of time. Applied findings are of use immediately. However, there is nothing so practical as a general and accurate theory. (2007, p.107)
Stanovich, K. (2007). How to Think Straight About Psychology: 8th Edition. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Photo by Helen Cook, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.