What is Basic Research?

Basic research or fundamental research is an essential component to building scientific knowledge. In this article, we will discuss basic science research, provide useful examples, and outline the research process in any basic or applied study.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. What is the meaning of basic research?
  3. Examples of basic research
  4. How do I perform basic research?


Basic science research is an essential pillar of scientific knowledge, because it extends understanding, provides new insights, and contributes to the advancement of science and fundamental knowledge across disciplines. In contrast, applied research aims for the discovery of practical solutions, which can involve using a technology or innovation that stems from existing knowledge. Basic science research potentially allows for generating ideas on which applied science can build novel inquiry and useful applications.

The process for conducting basic research is essentially the same as in an applied research orientation, but a better understanding of the distinction may prove increasingly important when crafting your research inquiry. In this article, we'll detail the characteristics and importance of basic research.

Basic research is a fundamental line of inquiry in all scientific disciplines.

What is the meaning of basic research?

One of the key distinctions in science is the divide between basic and applied research. Applied research is directly associated with practical applications such as:

  • career development
  • program evaluation
  • policy reform
  • community action

In inquiries regarding each of these applications, researchers identify a specific problem to be solved and design a study intentionally aimed at developing solutions to that problem. Basic research is less concerned about specific problems and more focused on the nature of understanding.

Basic research looks at advancement of understanding complex concepts. Photo by Shane Aldendorff.

Characteristics of basic research

Research that advances understanding of knowledge has distinguishing characteristics and important considerations.

  1. Focus on theoretical development. Rather than focus on practical applications, scholars in basic science research are more interested in ordering data and understanding in a scientific manner. This means expanding the consensus understanding of theory and the proposal of new theoretical frameworks that ultimately further research.
  2. Exploratory research questions. Basic research tends to look at areas where there is insufficient theoretical coherence to empirically understand phenomena. In other words, basic research often employs research questions that seek greater definition of knowledge.
  3. Funding for basic science. The nature of the support available for research depends on whether the science is basic or applied. Government agencies, national institutes, and private organizations all have different objectives, making some more appropriate for basic research than others.
  4. Writing for research dissemination. Academic journals exist on a continuum between theoretical and practical orientations. Journals that are more interested in theoretical and methodological discussions are more appropriate for basic research than are journals that look for more practical implications arising from research.

The brief survey of these characteristics should guide researchers about how they should approach research design in terms of feasibility, methods, and execution. This discussion shouldn't preclude you from pursuing basic research if it is more appropriate to your research inquiry. Instead, it should inform you of the opportunities, advantages, and challenges of basic research.

Exploration of new knowledge is a fundamental characteristic of basic research. Photo by Joshua Sortino.

Importance of basic research

Fundamental research may seem aimless and unfocused if it doesn't yield any direct practical implications. However, its contribution to scholarly discussion cannot be overstated as it guides the development of theories and facilitates critical discussion about what applied studies to pursue next.

Basic science has guided fields such as microbiology, engineering, and chemistry. Scientists ultimately use its findings to develop new methods in treating disease and innovating on new technology.

Its contribution to the social sciences through observation and longitudinal study is also immeasurable. While basic research is often a precursor to more applied science, the theories it generates spur further study that ultimately leads to professional development programs and policy reform in social institutions.

Examples of basic research

Different fields rely on both applied and basic science for generating new knowledge. While applied research looks to yield direct benefits through real-world applications, fundamental research provides the necessary theoretical foundation for practical research in various fields.

Basic research example in education

Basic research in schooling contexts focuses on understanding the nature of teaching and learning or the processes within educational environments before any focused investigation can be designed, let alone conducted. Basic research is necessary in this case because of the various situated differences across learners who come from different cultures and backgrounds.

Basic research in education looks at various inquiries such as how teachers and students interact with each other and how alternative assessments can create positive learning outcomes. Ultimately, this may lead to applied research that can facilitate the creation of teacher education and professional development programs.

Basic research is useful in educational contexts where differences among learners are vast. Photo by CDC.

Basic research example in psychology

Psychology is a field that is under constant development. Basic research is essential to developing theories related to human behavior and mental processes. The subfield of cognition is a significant benefactor of basic research as it relies on novel theoretical frameworks relating to memory and learning.

With limited established knowledge of the mind, psychology is an ideal field for basic research. Photo by Bret Kavanaugh.

Basic research example in health

A great deal of health research that reaches public consciousness is undoubtedly applied research. The development of vaccines and other medicine to combat the COVID-19 pandemic was one such line of inquiry that addressed a practical need.

That said, scientists will undoubtedly credit basic research as a precursor to medical breakthroughs in applied science research. The knowledge gained through basic research laid the foundation for genomic sequencing of the COVID-19 virus, while experiments on living systems created knowledge about how to safely vaccinate the human body.

The National Institute of Health sponsors such basic research and research in other areas such as human DNA, while the National Science Foundation funds basic research on topics such as gender stereotypes and stress levels.

Vaccines are a product of both basic research and applied research. Photo by Ed Us.

How do I perform basic research?

At its core, all scientific inquiry seeks to identify causal factors, relationships, and distinguishing characteristics among concepts and phenomena. As a result, the process is essentially the same for basic or applied science. Nonetheless, it is worth reviewing the process.

  1. Research design. Identify gaps in existing research that novel inquiry can address. A rigorous literature review can help identify theoretical or methodological gaps that a new study with an exploratory research question can address.
  2. Data collection. Exploratory research questions tend to prioritize data collection methods such as interviews, focus groups, and observations. Basic research, as a result, casts a wide net for any and all potential data that can facilitate generation of theoretical developments.
  3. Data analysis. At this stage, the goal is to organize and view your data in such a way that facilitates the identification of key insights. Analysis in basic research serves the dual purpose of filtering data through existing theoretical frameworks and generating new theory.
  4. Research dissemination. Once you determine your findings, you will want to present your insights in an empirical and rigorous manner. Visualizing data in your papers and presentations is useful for pointing out the most relevant data and analysis in your study.