The Whats and Whys of Basic Research

31 Oct 2017   

What is basic research and how is it applicable to the work done on World Community Grid? In this article, we’ll address some of the fundamental questions about basic research, which is the foundation of scientific discovery.


“Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and understanding of nature and its laws. The general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them.”

Vannevar Bush,
“Science, the Endless Frontier”

Dr. Akira Nakagawara (pictured at right in his lab) has led two research projects that used World Community Grid to find new and better treatments for childhood cancer. The first project not only found seven drug compounds that could fight childhood cancer, but also discovered that two of these compounds might help treat depression.

What is basic research?

When scientists study a phenomenon, a particular subject, or a natural law, with the primary intention of understanding what they’re studying, they’re conducting basic research. This type of research, which can be conducted in any branch of science, is meant to add to and strengthen the very core of scientific knowledge.

On the other hand, applied research, which involves testing possible applications of theories and methods, often gets more attention than basic research because it can more directly result in new discoveries. But applied research depends on the accumulation of knowledge that is only possible from many basic research studies, some of which are branded as “failures” before they turn out to have applications that the original researchers never may have guessed.

In the scientific world, there’s often not a clear division between basic and applied research. Many World Community Grid projects could be considered a combination of both. For example, the Mapping Cancer Markers project, which is looking for biomarkers for various types of cancer, can be considered basic research in that it involves sifting through massive amounts of raw data in a new way, but is also applied research because its goals—such as helping find personalized treatments for cancer—are concrete.

In another example, the researchers working on the Computing for Clean Water project wanted to study how to filter water more efficiently. This applied research led to some basic research findings which discovered some new properties about how water molecules interact with the walls of carbon nanotubes. These properties might prove useful in future applied research to develop better ways of removing salt from water and even some medical applications.

The researchers for the Computing for Clean Water project (described in the video above) discovered a phenomenon that could improve water filtration technology and desalination.

Why is it crucial for continued scientific discovery?

Future discoveries depend on the basic research of yesterday and today. And basic research projects often uncover knowledge no one expected, and lead to paths that were previously unknown.

One recent example for World Community Grid researchers occurred in 2016, when the Help Fight Childhood Cancer researchers discovered that two of the chemical compounds they were studying for their effectiveness against neuroblastoma might be useful in developing a treatment for depression and dementia.

Why is public involvement in this type of research so important?

“Basic research is often misunderstood, because it often seems to have no immediate payoff.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
“The Future Postponed”

Public funding for all types of science has been declining in many countries for a number of years. For example, researchers in Argentina and Brazil have experienced steep decreases in federal funds, and in 2016 scientists in Italy launched an online petition for greater funding that received more than 77,000 signatures. When scientific funding is cut, the sparse remaining monies are often allocated to projects that are viewed as having a quicker “payoff,” such as the proposed 2018 budget for the USA’s National Science Foundation that cuts funding to certain graduate fellowships while prioritizing other programs.

If you recognize the importance of basic research and its place in science, you’re better equipped to support the scientific fields and projects that are most important to you. In addition to joining World Community Grid to donate your unused computing time to humanitarian research projects, you can join scientific organizations in your local community, and find and support additional citizen science projects in a wide variety of areas. Just as every computer is important to World Community Grid projects, every effort you make to support science makes a difference.

“Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.”

Louis Pasteur