I just had occasion to read about the Frascati manual, a “methodology” developed for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for collecting statistics about research and development. According to the Wikipedia page, the manual makes the fairly orthodox distinction between basic research, applied research and experimental development:
Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.
Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.
Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on existing knowledge gained from research and/or practical experience, which is directed to producing new materials, products or devices, to installing new processes, systems and services, or to improving substantially those already produced or installed.
These definitions seem to presume that to “improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world” (stated objective of the OECD), knowing the “underlying foundation” of phenomena (as opposed to, say, merely having an idea of how to bring about improved or optimal outcomes) is some kind of priority. They also imply a kind of hierarchy of knowledge from the noble basic research, serenely unconcerned with application or use, to the vulgar practicalities of experimental development.
It seems strange that an organization committed to securing economic development would find such a hierarchy appropriate. In any case, we know that any “knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena” that we think we have come by as the result of research will, in all likelihood, have to be revised sooner or later in the light of further research. To think that we have secured such absolute, objective knowledge of the workings of the world unaffected by the particular conditions of time and place under which we made the observations is to pretend to ourselves that we somehow managed to achieve an objective viewpoint lying outside the contingencies of our experience as individual human beings. Of course, we know that most things that happen in nature are unobserved by people and we have no way of proving to ourselves that our observations are really objective. In practise, we can only try to identify the limitations of any set of observations and resolve to exceed those limitations in future. Our knowledge may grow, but it never becomes truly objective.
What, then, can we say about basic research that is reasonable? There’s a clue in the Frascati description of basic research as being “without any particular application or use in view”. If that was literally true, what motivation would there be to conduct basic research? If you don’t have some technical application in view, isn’t the motivation for (and therefore the intended use of) basic research that one will have something to talk to other people about that they will find new and interesting? More specifically, the type of talking that basic researchers want to do is not just showing off a stamp collection of facts, but to put forward for consideration a new development in theory, corroborated by the facts, but having implications that go well beyond the specific circumstances in which the facts were collected. More than that, they want those to whom they show their proposed new theory to start acting on it. That may mean acting as though it is true or as though it’s the most important thing to prove untrue. The important thing is that they don’t just ignore it.
If we can accept, in that vein, that all research is ultimately carried out for some kind of use value, even if all that means is using accounts of our own experience to try and influence the behaviour of others, then we have a basis for rewriting the Frascati definitions in a way that hardly changes what gets classified as “basic research”, “applied research” or “experimental development”, but which does centre the definitions on human activity rather than knowledge that somehow exists independently of human activity and that shows how there three types of research interact and depend on each other:
- Basic Research is work in which a specific phenomenon is studied with the aim of developing an idealised theoretical model of its operation that can be used to account for the operation of as wide a range of other phenomena as possible;
- Applied Research is work in which assessment is made of how well a theoretical model purported to explain the operation of a phenomenon of interest actually can account for its operation in practise.
- Experimental Development is work in which the detailed conditions needed to secure the most desirable outcome of specific phenomena are assessed empirically; existing theoretical models are taken for granted, but benefits that could come from developing theoretical accounts of phenomena so far lacking any may be identified.
These definitions tweak the Frascati ones to discard the hierarchy and highlight the role that each type of research plays in an economic cycle of knowledge production. What do you think?