Blue Skies or Applied Research – An Old Debate

By Michael Edmonds 02/10/2011

“University professors who are opposed to organising, planning and directing research after the manner of industrial laboratories … have something to think about now. A most important piece of research [the atomic bomb] was conducted on behalf of the Army in precisely the means adopted in industrial laboratories. End results: an invention was given to the world in three years, which would have taken perhaps half-a-century to develop if we had to rely on prima donna research scientists who work alone”

New York Times, 7th August 1945

“Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn … Basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress… A nation that depends on others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade.”

Science the Endless Frontier by Vannevar Bush; report to President Truman, 1945

So, the debate over the merits of blue skies versus applied research has certainly been around since the end of the World War II. The first quote trumpets the success of a cohesive, focused group of scientists in the development of the atomic bomb. However, it needs to be acknowledged that this research programme was incredibly well resourced, driven by the need to win the war. And although the quote disparages academic scientists as loners, this ignores the fact that quite a few scientists then, as now, work in collaborative teams.

I very much like the second quote: I think its final sentence echoes some of the sentiments voiced by Professor Sir Paul Callaghan. A focus on only applied research would, in my opinion, likely turn New Zealand into a scientific backwater – with many of our creative minds leaving New Zealand to work in the “first world” of scientific research.

Luckily, New Zealand currently has a mix of talented researcher occupying both the applied and pure research spheres; indeed both activities may sometimes take place in the same laboratories – that neat balance between exploring the unknown while making use of opportunities that arise from those explorations.

All we need now, is more funding – in both areas.


This blog was inspired by “The Emperor of All Maladies- A biography of cancer” where author Siddhartha Mukherjee uses both of these quotes in his discussion of how decisions were made to approach anticancer research.

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