Fundamental vs Applied science: which is more ‘scientific’?

Someone asked me this at ‘Bessensap,’ an NWO event for scientists and journalists. I thought this was a great question and worth a blog post.

Fundamental and applied: what is the difference?

Fundamental science is aimed at generating knowledge for the sake of knowledge whereas applied science is aimed at generating knowledge that translates into societal value. For instance improved healthcare, sustainable energy or healthier food. Doesn’t that sound a lot more useful than knowledge for the sake of knowledge!

Scientific = able to produce truth?

Long ago a product on the breakfast table introduced me to the term ‘scientific.’ Bright orange letters on the package mentioned that it was ‘scientifically proven’ to lower cholesterol. Later, the term ‘scientific’ came along in discussions on topics such as climate change and vaccination. If something was ‘scientifically proven’ than that should close the discussion.

So we may interpret ‘scientific’ as able to produce objective truth about cause and effect (causality). Fundamental and applied science are both able to generate objective truth – if performed properly. They produce different truths however because they ask different questions. To explain how, let’s imagine the thought process of a fundamental and an applied scientist being inspired by a boxing match.

The fundamental scientist:

“How does the boxer move his leg?”

“The brain sends a signal to the muscle.”

“How does the signal convey joint angles?”

“How….”

At the core of fundamental science is a quest for how things work. This entails breaking complex things (a boxer fighting) down in particles that can each be understood individually (cells eventually). Because it is often unrealistic to analyze something in the smallest particles possible, most scientists chose a level of analysis. For instance behavior, information or brain cells.

Separating the elements from their complex context allows you to understand how they behave. However, the critic may remark that a boxer is more than a muscle and that the scientist was never really studying the boxer. So lets examine what the applied scientist may think while watching the boxing game:

“That boxer kicks pretty high!”

“Could we use boxing to increase range of motion following surgery?”

At the core of applied science is a quest for what we can do. In this example the applied scientist may compare the outcome of traditional therapy with the outcome of boxing therapy. After his study he or she may conclude that boxing therapy improves the lower limbs’ range of motion. This is a practical truth that you can use. Because the practical world is complex, applied science does not necessarily resolve the ‘how’ question. Does that even matter? Isn’t the how question a childhood question that we ask before we have finances to worry about? 

Scientific = generation of knowledge

Having worked in science for many years, I came to understand science is more than a truth factory. Science is a quest for knowledge with complete understanding as an ultimate aim. The more we learn from an experiment the better it is. So we can also interpret ‘scientific’ as able to generate knowledge.

The drawback of the applied focus on the complex, practical world is that it limits progress of knowledge. When we do not know which elements of a complex thing were essential in creating an effect, knowledge about the effect only holds for the situation that was studied. Of a complex situation only a few instances exist: there is only one instance of you reading this blog post.

instances

When things have been broken down into elements, chances are much higher that these elements will be present in another situation. There are, for instance, many instances of brain cells processing visual information about letters. When we understand things that are present in many things – mass for instance – we can use our knowledge in a new situation (the moon). Moreover we can combine the knowledge with knowledge about other things. Fundamental research allows science to take big steps. Without fundamental research, science can only take very small or uncertain steps.

So who is more scientific?

Fundamental science may be more scientific because it allows for faster progression of knowledge. Applied science is needed to attach practical value to this knowledge. So one could say that in the labyrinth, the fundamental scientist searches for the keys and the applied scientist collects the goods.

3 thoughts on “Fundamental vs Applied science: which is more ‘scientific’?

  1. “Isn’t the how question a childhood question that we ask before we have finances to worry about?”
    No, it’s a question we cherish as long as possible, because once you stop wondering, then what’s left? We may need to do additional things to pay the bills, but we should not never stop asking how/why questions…

    About applied vs fundamental science:
    A lot can be achieved by solely focussing on action-outcome relations (black box), and sometimes this is all you want to know because you’re only interested in obtaining a certain result. Black boxes can be creatively applied to new situations with great success, but little understanding. By trying to understand what’s happening inside the black box we might be able to gain control over the action-outcome process, increase (in a controlled way) the potential outcomes we might get and vastly expand the potential for applications. This is what fundamental science is like in my mind: it makes the black box transparent and exposing its inner mechanism. For example, in order to drive a car I only* need to know that pressing the gass-pedal will make it move forward. I can apply this principle to vans as well, but by understanding how an engine works, we can build many more machine that move in fundamentally different ways.

    (*I know there’s a little more to it but this is probably still a decent example of what I’m trying to say)

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  2. Thanks for the comment! I like the phrase of fundamental science ‘making the black box transparent’. I think your comment is exactly what I wanted to say, the questions were intended as provocative. I do believe though that applied science is also important and that the applied questions shouldn’t be handed to fundamental science just like the fundamental questions shouldn’t be handed to applied science.

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