Applied Research, Basic Research

Understand the difference between Applied Research and Basic Research.

Time-lapse photo of stars rotating around Polaris

Research efforts are sometimes categorized by the aim or motivation of the investigator. In the U.S., funding agencies such as NIH and NSF distinguish between applied research and basic (aka fundamental or pure) research in their RFPs, Request for Proposals:

Applied ResearchThe research is conducted to solve a particular problem for specific situation.
Basic ResearchThe research is conducted to advance knowledge and theory without consideration for commercial gain or practical application.

Key Terms: Aims of Research; Types of Research

It is commonplace to sort research by its purpose or aim. The two dominant aims of research are Applied Research and Basic Research.

Applied Research

Applied research is the work that gets done to solve workplace, educational, personal, and social problems. Investigators tackle these types of projects to make the world a better place. Researchers use this method to analyze obstacles, solve problems and create commercial opportunities.

For instance, in Writing Studies, an applied research project could investigate whether training in style and grammar improves student writing.

Basic Research

Basic research is driven by curiosity about how some aspect of the world works.

This type of research is not conducted to solve specific problems for specific communities nor is it conducted to develop specific applications. Rather, the goal of basic research is to contribute to knowledge–i.e., what discourse communities/communities believe to be true.

Basic Research Often Informs Applied Research

People cannot foresee the future well enough to predict what’s going to develop from basic research. If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears.

George Smoot, qtd in Mullane, 2006, p. 5

Research practices are iterative. As researchers engage in composing and ongoing dialectic, thanks to the iterative nature of research, basic research may inform applied research and result unexpected commercial applications. For example, the following basic research led to applications–i.e., Applied Research.

  • Discovery of x-rays which led to studying bone fractures
  • Discovery of chlorpromazine, a drug used in the treatment of schizophrenia
  • Discovery of dark adaptation which helped establish a theory of basic visual processes that led to applications in treating night blindness and reading x-rays
  • Psychological studies of decision making that led to important findings in the fields of education, medicine, and economics” (Psych Central, Retrieved 3/15/20).

Examples of basic research in Writing Studies could include fundamental questions such as How does writing shape thinking?
In terms of human development, when can students learn to adopt their messages for their audiences? What is the relationship between speech, thought and language?


Hale, Julie. (2018, July). Understanding Research Methodology 5: Applied and Basic Research. Psych Central. 

Mullane, L. (2006, September/October). Beyond basic: Applied research brings real-world solutions to real-world problems. Public Purpose, 2-5.

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