Pure vs. Applied Research: Two outdated conceptions of science

Earlier this morning, the British Ecological Society tweeted:
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Now, I knew they were doing this – my department is represented at the meeting, and I was involved in our preliminary discussions regarding what we thought were important questions. But I was always uneasy about the exercise, partly because important questions don’t always come in nice even numbers; but mainly because of the single word ‘pure’. Especially as this is a centenary exercise, and if we’ve learnt one thing in 100 years of ecology, surely it’s that you can’t separate ecology from people. Or, as another ecological tweeter had put it a couple of days before:
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Turns out @lusseau is in good company. Back in 1965, Sir Peter Medawar delivered his Henry Tizard Memorial Lecture, Two Conceptions of Science. Although the conceptions he set out were the romantic or poetic, and the rational or analytical – “the one speaking for imaginative insight and the other for the evidence of the senses”1 – and his lecture delves deeper into the philosophy of this decision than I intend to be here (subject, perhaps, for a future post) – he certainly has plenty to say on the basic versus applied division, with ‘romantic’ science “finding in scientific research its own reward” whereas ‘rational’ science calls “for a valuation in the currency of practical use.”

Medawar’s particular beef is with the class distinction which he saw as having grown up around the difference between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science. He characterises (or rather, consciously caricatures) his two sciences in terms of their practical use, as follows (evidently Medawar’s conceptions of science didn’t extend to female scientists, but perhaps we’ll forgive him, this was nearly 50 years ago!):

[Romantic] science can flourish only in an atmosphere of complete freedom, protected from the nagging importunities of need and use, because the scientist must travel where his imagination leads him. Even if a man should spend five years getting nowhere, that might represent an honourable and perhaps even a noble endeavour. The patrons of science – today the Research Councils and the great Foundations – should support men, not projects, and individual men rather than teams, for the history of science is for the most part a history of men of genius.
The alternative conception runs something like this… Scientific research is intended to enlarge human understanding, and its usefulness is the only objective measure of the degree to which it does so; as to freedom in science, two world wars have shown us how very well science can flourish under the pressures of necessity. Patrons of science who really know their business will support projects, not people, and most of these projects will be carried out by teams rather than by individuals, because modern science calls for a consortium of the talents and the day of the individual is almost done. If any scientist should spend five years getting nowhere, his ambitions should be turned in some other direction without delay.

Medawar was well aware that these two visions of science both have elements of truth, as science involves both “having an idea and testing it or trying it out”:

a scientist must indeed be freely imaginative and yet sceptical, creative and yet a critic. There is a sense in which he must be free, but another in which his thought must be very precisely regimented; there is poetry in science, but also a lot of bookkeeping.

Tempting though it is to continue quoting Medawar at length, we’re in danger of losing the thread here: let’s return to the division between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science. Medawar points out that in the early days of the Royal Society, “the idea of science pursued for its own sake was regarded as frivolous or even comic”, when “the opposite of useful was not pure but – idle.” And yet somehow, during the Romantic period, this perception got turned on its head: the notion of ‘purity’ arose (despite, as Medawar notes, no scientist ever expressing admiration of a piece of work as ‘how pure!’); applied science became rather vulgar, somehow morally inferior to pure research, “and with it the dire equation Useless = Good.”

It seems to me that we’ve come full circle, and now ‘pure’, ‘basic’ or ‘blue skies’ research is considered to be under attack from the dreaded impact agenda (although having claimed that science is vital to the economy, of course we are going to be asked constantly to affirm this!). But why should we be worried about the future of ‘pure’ research? “Invest in pure applied science for quick returns (the spiritual message runs), but in pure science for capital appreciation.”

In other words, the idea of some future, unspecified ‘use’ is often implicit in any defence of ‘pure’ research. For example, we make a virtue (says Medawar) of encouraging pure research in medical institutes – and I could say the same about the environmental sciences – in the hope that this basic research will someday bear fruit (i.e. result in a cure, or feed the world). “But there is nothing virtuous about it! We encourage pure research in these situations because we know no other way to go about it. If we knew a direct pathway leading to the clinical problem of rheumatoid arthritis, can anyone seriously believe that we should not take it?”

Medawar’s suggestion to break down this artificial division between basic and applied research is to reverse the usual process of university research, where :

…it is believed and hoped that something practically useful nay be come upon in the course of free-ranging enquiry, whereupon research which has hitherto shed diffuse light will now come sharply into focus. This procedure… works sometimes, and it may be the best we can do, but… [m]ight not the converse approach be equally effective, given equal opportunity and equal talent? – to start with a concrete problem, but then to allow the research to open out in the direction of greater generality, so that the more particular and special discoveries can be made to rank as theorems derived from statements of higher explanatory value… Research done in this style is always in focus, and those who carry it out, if temporarily baffled, can always retreat from the general into the particular.

This, for me, is where the next century of ecological research lies: focus on the problem, use whatever means are necessary (from fundamental understanding to engineering solutions) to tackle it. Listing 100 questions in ‘pure’ ecology does not seem a sensible first step. But I’ll leave the last word to Medawar:

When I speak of our endeavours to make the world a better place to live in I neither say nor imply that this melioration can be achieved by purely material means, though I am quite sure it can’t be achieved without them… I believe, as many others do, that material progress is necessary for our improvement, but I do not know, and have never heard of, anybody who said that it could be sufficient… [My] general tone… may give the impression that I am an ‘optimist’, but indeed I am no such thing, though I admit to a sanguine temperament. I prefer to describe myself as a ‘meliorist’ – one who believes that the world can be improved by finding out what is wrong with it and then taking steps to put it right.

1 All quotes are from the text of Medawar’s 1965 Henry Tizard Memorial Lecture, and from the Introduction to his collection of writings Pluto’s Republic.