The difference between basic and applied research – Key differences

 In a rapidly evolving landscape of scientific and technological innovation, understanding the inner workings of research is increasingly vital.

Whether you’re a seasoned academic, an industry professional, or simply a curious individual, comprehending the difference between applied and basic research is used to provide critical insights into how knowledge is both generated and utilized. 

These two kinds of research, while distinct in their aims and methodologies, often serve as two sides of the same coin, each with its unique contributions and challenges.

By examining research outcomes, funding sources, criticisms, and examples from both categories, this comprehensive blog demystifies the often blurry line that separates basic research vs applied research methods. 

If you’ve ever pondered which type of research to use for a project or questioned how basic principles derived from foundational studies turn into real-world applications, this exploration offers a lens into the multifaceted world of research.

Key Differences Between Basic and Applied Research

In the realm of scientific inquiry, understanding the key differences between basic and applied research is crucial. These two types of research serve distinct purposes and often utilize different research methods, but they are interconnected in the quest for new knowledge.

AttributeBasic ResearchApplied Research
Primary ObjectiveTo acquire new knowledge and understandingTo solve a specific, practical problem
FocusTheoretical, general conceptsReal-world applications
Research MethodsObservational, theoretical, experimentalControlled experiments, surveys, case studies
Immediate ApplicationTypically noYes
ExamplesEinstein’s theories in physicsHealth campaigns to reduce heart disease
CriticismsMay lack immediate practical useMay not contribute to theoretical understanding
Time HorizonLong-term, foundationalShort-term, actionable
Funding SourceOften academic or government grantsTypically industry, private sector, or targeted grants
Real-world ImpactMay lead to unforeseen applicationsDirectly aimed at current issues
InterconnectednessCan lay the groundwork for applied researchMay contribute to general understanding

Basic Research

Basic research focuses on the acquisition of fundamental understanding without immediate application in mind. 

For example, when Einstein was formulating his theories in physics, he was conducting basic research.

He sought to explain the laws governing the universe but didn’t necessarily aim to solve a practical problem.

Basic research often gets criticized for not having apparent applications, but it lays the groundwork for future advancements. Years after Einstein, his theories paved the way for the development of laser technology, used in everything from DVDs to medical procedures.

Applied Research

Applied research focuses on solving specific, practical problems. It’s the type of research used when health psychologists want to tackle rising rates of cardiovascular diseases, for instance. Conducting applied research, they may investigate effective messaging strategies to encourage healthier diets, aiming to produce tangible benefits in public health. 

Applied research seeks to utilize scientific understanding for a particular real-world issue.

The line between basic and applied research is not always clear-cut. While applied research may yield new knowledge that contributes to a broader understanding of human behavior, basic research may inadvertently lead to practical applications.

For instance, research in quantum mechanics, which was initially considered highly theoretical, has found applications in modern computing.

It’s also worth noting that the research methods employed may differ based on the type of research being conducted.

Applied research often employs methods like case studies, surveys, or controlled experiments aimed at resolving a specific issue, whereas basic research might involve more theoretical or observational methods aimed at general understanding.

While basic research often explores theoretical concepts without an immediate application, applied research focuses on real-world issues. Both are integral in advancing our collective knowledge and sometimes unexpectedly complement each other in offering solutions to challenges we face.

 What’s better? Basic vs applied research?

The debate between the impact of basic and applied research is an enduring one, and both sides have compelling arguments. The key differences between the two types of research are their aims and methods.

  1. Basic research focuses on generating new knowledge and understanding fundamental principles, often without an immediate application in mind.
  2. Applied research, on the other hand, seeks to solve specific problems and is often guided by practical outcomes.

One could argue, as some experts do, that basic research often has a more profound long-term impact. For instance, the discovery of the structure of DNA was a feat of basic research.

Today, it serves as the cornerstone for a multitude of applied research projects in genetics, forensics, and medicine. Another example of basic research is the development of quantum mechanics, which initially appeared to be an abstract field but has led to the invention of technologies like semiconductors and MRI machines.

Conversely, applied research focuses on immediate needs and therefore, its impact can be more immediately visible.

Examples of applied research include the development of COVID-19 vaccines or the creation of energy-efficient technologies. This type of research often uses methods and knowledge generated by basic research to achieve its goals.

The contention that applied research can be counterproductive due to its narrow focus and the push to monetize findings is a nuanced issue.

While entrepreneurship courses in academic settings may appear to detract from the purity of research, they can also offer researchers tools to transform basic research into applied solutions, bridging the gap between theory and practice.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive; basic research and applied research often go hand in hand.

Researchers conducting applied research may stumble upon findings that contribute to new knowledge, just as those conducting basic research may see their work result in unexpected applications.

Examples of basic research vs applied research

Basic Research:

  1. Genetic Sequencing: Research to understand the sequences of DNA and what each gene does.
  2. Particle Physics: Experiments in places like CERN to understand the basic building blocks of the universe.
  3. Social Psychology Theories: Studying human behavior in a controlled environment to understand basic social interactions.
  4. Climate Models: Researching the fundamental mechanisms that control climate change without necessarily looking for immediate solutions.
  5. Pure Mathematics: Investigating abstract mathematical concepts that may not have an immediate application.
  6. Astronomy: Observing and mapping distant celestial bodies to understand the universe’s structure.
  7. Brain Mapping: Basic research on how neurons communicate within the brain, without a targeted application.
  8. Evolutionary Biology: Studying how organisms evolve over time to adapt to their environment.

Applied Research:

  1. Pharmaceuticals: Developing new drugs based on an understanding of disease mechanisms.
  2. Renewable Energy: Researching better solar panels or wind turbines to harness energy more efficiently.
  3. Market Research: Understanding consumer behavior to improve product design or advertising strategies.
  4. Educational Methods: Evaluating teaching strategies to improve educational outcomes.
  5. Medical Procedures: Research to develop new surgical techniques or medical devices.
  6. Cybersecurity: Designing new types of encryption or security measures based on vulnerabilities.
  7. Agricultural Techniques: Researching better ways to increase crop yield or protect against pests.
  8. Transportation: Developing new materials for lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Careers in basic research and applied research

Here are some examples of careers that use mainly basic or applied research – but some scientists do a mixture of both.

Careers in Basic Research:

  1. Theoretical Physicist: Focuses on understanding the fundamental laws governing physical phenomena.
  2. Astrophysicist: Studies the properties and behaviors of celestial bodies and the universe.
  3. Mathematician: Conducts research in pure mathematics, exploring abstract concepts.
  4. Geneticist: Investigates genes, genetic variation, and heredity in organisms.
  5. Neuroscientist: Researches the complexities of the nervous system, including the brain.
  6. Biochemist: Studies the chemical processes within and related to living organisms.
  7. Cognitive Psychologist: Explores the mental processes behind human behavior.
  8. Archaeologist: Conducts research to understand human history and pre-history through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts.
  9. Geologist: Studies the Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history, and the processes that act on it.

Careers in Applied Research:

  1. Pharmaceutical Researcher: Develops new drugs or medical treatments.
  2. Environmental Consultant: Provides advice on environmental regulations and conducts research to solve environmental problems.
  3. Data Scientist: Uses statistical models to analyze data for actionable insights, often for businesses.
  4. Mechanical Engineer: Designs and tests new devices, often focused on solving specific mechanical problems.
  5. Market Research Analyst: Conducts research to understand market trends and consumer behavior.
  6. Clinical Psychologist: Applies psychological research to treat mental health disorders.
  7. Agricultural Scientist: Researches ways to improve the sustainability and productivity of agricultural systems.
  8. Software Developer: Creates new software based on research into user needs, technological advancements, or problem-solving.
  9. Nutritional Epidemiologist: Studies the relationship between diet and health outcomes, often aiming for public health applications.

Wrapping up – applied research and basic research

As we’ve journeyed through this comprehensive exploration of applied research and basic research, it’s clear that each holds its unique place in the expansive world of research.

The two are like siblings—different in personality but stemming from the same family of intellectual inquiry.

Basic research is theoretical and often provides the foundation for applied research. On the flip side, applied research is practical in nature and focuses on solving immediate real-world problems.

Despite their differences, one can’t exist optimally without the other.

Basic research helps pave the way for advancements in applied research, while findings from applied research can loop back to enrich our foundational knowledge.

While basic research tends to engage with more conceptual questions, applied research is driven by practical problems that require immediate solutions. These different types of research methods can serve different purposes but are not mutually exclusive.

The world of research is enriched by the interplay between basic and applied research methods. Whether theoretical or practical, long-term or immediate, both contribute significantly to our understanding and make up the vibrant tapestry of research that seeks to answer questions, solve problems, and improve our lives.

And there we have it—your guided tour through the landscape of applied and basic research is complete!

Whether you’re an aspiring researcher, an industry professional, or a curious individual, understanding these key differences between basic and applied research will surely add a valuable layer to your perspective.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.