Monday, February 13, 2012

Applied Science

There is a big push in the university systems in the United States to develop research programs emphasizing Applied Science. Applied Science (AS from here on out) is one of the more recent buzzwords that you're likely to hear from administrators at universities, especially those that do not have colleges or schools of engineering. Applied Science, roughly, is the application of basic scientific principles to real-world problems and challenges. In comparison to basic science, it seeks to solve a tangible problem that directly affects the human condition, rather than studying the basic workings of the universe. In the university setting, AS differs from typical R&D in the corporate world as it tends to develop products that are not ready for production or sale, but could be taken over by a company and refined. The current emphasis on AS is due to a number of different factors:
  1. The decline in research done by corporations. Ask someone over the age of 60 who is an engineer, physicist, or chemist about Bell Laboratories. I don't have the time or space to discuss Bell Labs and the innovations is produced (there's Wikipedia for that). Suffice it to say that, in its heyday, Bell Labs was the place for applied science research (as well as some more basic research). However, today's corporate world does not value AS enough to fund it as it did before. As a result, there is a niche that has opened up, and universities are rushing to fill it.
  2. The change in US Federal funding. As the economy goes, so goes federal funding of research. In addition to shrinking research budgets, granting agencies tend to favor proposals that closely address a specific problem (a disease, a missing technology, etc.) rather than a gap in our knowledge. These two factors have decreased the funding available for traditional, basic research, disincentivizing it.
  3. The search for new funding sources. Universities (especially public ones) are suffering economically due to decreased state and federal funding. Patents for products or processes developed through AS can be very lucrative (see FSU and taxol).
The move to AS by many universities will be interesting to watch. Schools with well-developed Materials Science, Engineering, and Technology programs will find increased competition for federal funds. Universities that have traditionally focused on basic science will have to strike a balance between all basic or all AS. While this is a good move overall, I fear that many universities are jumping into AS too quickly and with too much abandon, to the detriment of basic science. We still need basic science research to feed ideas for AS, but if universities start to weaken or abandon basic science programs, we will likely see a dramatic decrease in innovation and technological advancement 20 to 30 years in the future.