Among the constellation of entities that form the nation’s innovation infrastructure are organizations that conduct the research essential to technological progress. The applied research conducted by private entities and universities garner headlines for their role in bringing more mature technologies to market, but progress depends on foundational research that confirms the theoretical underpinnings of a technology. This foundational research is known as “basic research” and is often conducted via governmental agencies and federal funding.
The Research Ecosystem
Research projects are generally funded by various types of grants. Public agencies like the National Institutes of Health determine how they are dispersed. Grants can be awarded by third-party governmental agencies on a year-by-year basis or for the duration of a project (called extramural research). Projects conducted by entities like the National Institutes of Health can be funded directly from their federally designated budgets (intramural research) based, in part, on the nation’s current research needs. Private entities can monitor and evaluate research outcomes to identify opportunities to apply and eventually monetize basic findings.
Basic Research: Foundations of Patented Technology
This basic research acts as a starting point for many breakthrough technologies that are eventually patented. This innovation ecosystem plays a vital role in the overall innovative capacity of private and public institutions and the number of high-quality patents that are awarded and eventually brought to market. The interplay between these patent stakeholders has evolved into an innovation pipeline within which entities differentiated in their goals are moving in a singular direction to advance technological progress.
Public and Private and Their Complementary Roles
The complexity of scientific pursuits makes them financially risky. While many private institutions have the talent and technology to take advantage of its upsides, the emerging science to applied technology pipeline can take years and require billions of dollars in investment. As even the most experienced and successful innovators know, not every project can equal a breakthrough. So what happens when an expected breakthrough becomes a massive flop? The short answer is that otherwise productive and profitable companies may see their doors close.
This grim possibility has led to private companies and individuals doing less basic research. And this has been the case over the last several decades. Preferring revenue-generating applied research over exploring the foundational scientific phenomena behind key technologies in an easy choice for many companies. This has led to some concerns that not enough basic research is being done, either by private industries or the US’s innovation ecosystem as a whole.
Stepping in are public research institutions like the National Institutes of Health to provide funding to third parties like non-profits and public universities, or in some cases private companies, to conduct research they expect will be beneficial to their organization and the country as a whole. This system of extramural funding is effective because it allows these third parties to balance fiscal and altruistic goals as innovators and public entities. Publicly-funded universities are a prime example. These institutions can financially benefit from inventions by retaining ownership and transferring technologies but commercialization does not necessarily diminish their role as an academic institution dedicated to advancing knowledge and publishing scholarly work.
Intramural research, like what is performed by scientists at government agencies like the NIH or NASA, is conducted by agency-employed scientists for the benefit of the agency. The agency’s directive is to provide research that isn’t directed by profit motive and therefore is more likely to make discoveries that won’t necessarily ever have practical applications–but often does.
Basic Research in Action
The US’s basic to applied research pipeline was at its best when the nation was fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Decades of research went into the key scientific breakthroughs that saved lives and helped get the raging virus under control. The vaccines that comprise frontline protection against COVID-19 are a novel therapeutic delivery system that has been in the making since the 1970s. Millions of dollars, dozens of years, and leading minds sought to understand the fundamental nature of mRNA before a synthetic version could be used to trigger an immune response that can prepare the body for infection. To wit, monoclonal antibody COVID-19 treatments benefitted from research on HIV that began in the 1990s.
As mentioned above, publicly-funded universities are an important source of basic research. But their role goes beyond simply performing research for its own sake, which is critical, but not the entire story, as it concerns the university’s role in the national research pipeline. This was evident in the early aughts when social media began its ascension (or intrusion, depending on your perspective). Researchers seeking to meld understandings of technology and psychology laid the foundations of modern social media.