Basic vs. applied research

Learn more about the fundamental differences between basic and applied research and how each approach contributes to scientific knowledge.
Lauren Stewart
Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional
  1. Coding qualitative data for valuable insights
  2. What is the difference between applied research and basic research?
  3. Examples of basic research vs. applied research
  4. Basic vs. applied research: A comparative analysis
  5. The interplay between basic and applied research


Basic and applied research look at existing knowledge and create new knowledge in different ways. They share the same basic principles of contributing to knowledge through research findings, but their aims and objectives are distinctly different.

Basic and applied research look at existing knowledge and create new knowledge in different ways. They share the same basic principles of contributing to knowledge through research findings, but their aims and objectives are distinctly different.

In the vast realm of scientific inquiry, research stands as the cornerstone for advancement, driving our understanding of the world and fostering innovation. At its core, research can be bifurcated into two primary types: applied and basic research. While both serve pivotal roles in contributing to our collective knowledge, they operate with distinct objectives and outcomes.

What is the difference between applied research and basic research?

Any approach that is called basic research delves into the foundational principles and theories of science. It is driven by a researcher's curiosity and the aspiration to expand the frontiers of understanding. The primary goal isn't to solve an immediate problem but to garner knowledge for the sake of understanding.

On the other hand, applied research focuses on analysis intended to solve practical problems. Conducting applied research means seeking solutions to specific, tangible challenges that society or industries face. Using the principles derived from basic research, applied research aims to bring about real-world impact and deliver pragmatic solutions.

Basic research

Basic research, often called "pure" or "fundamental" research, is characterized by its intrinsic quest to unravel the mysteries of nature and society. It is an investigation into the very core of phenomena, aiming to discover new principles, theories, or facts without an immediate application in mind. This kind of research is often propelled by the researcher's curiosity, a thirst to understand the "why" and "how" of things, rather than the "what can we do with it."

Basic research seeks to understand the unknown. Photo by Michelle Spencer.

Basic research has a relatively broad scope and aims to enhance the existing body of knowledge in a particular field. It's not about creating a new product, improving a process, or solving a current societal problem. Instead, it's about laying the groundwork for future investigations, paving the way for applied research to build upon. Basic research poses questions like, "What are the fundamental principles of this phenomenon?" or "How does this process work at different levels?"

Such goals provide the essential framework upon which much of our modern understanding and technological advancement rests. Without the exploratory and explanatory nature of basic research, the foundational knowledge needed to drive innovation would be missing.

Applied research

While basic research focuses on curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, applied research takes a different approach by examining how real-world phenomena or outcomes can be altered. At its core, applied research is oriented towards identifying practical solutions to specific problems. Its primary objective is not just to add to the existing knowledge base but to leverage that knowledge to develop solutions, innovations, or interventions that can be directly applied in the real world.

Applied research looks for solutions to real-world issues. Photo by Sorin Gheorghita.

Applied research is deeply rooted in real-world issues. Whether it's finding a cure for a specific disease, developing a new technological solution for environmental challenges, or creating strategies to improve education in underprivileged communities, the primary goal is to generate practical outcomes that can be directly implemented. Its relevance is often immediately apparent, as it's tailored to answer particular challenges faced by society, industries, or organizations.

The line between basic and applied research can sometimes blur, especially when foundational discoveries from basic research lead directly to tangible applications. However, the main distinction lies in the intent: while basic research seeks to understand the fundamental nature of phenomena, applied research aims to harness that understanding for tangible benefits.

Applied research is invaluable as it accelerates the transition of theoretical knowledge into practical, impactful solutions. Through applied research, the abstract findings of basic research are transformed into actionable insights, tools, and technologies that shape our daily lives and address pressing challenges.

Examples of basic research vs. applied research

Research in the social sciences encompasses a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from understanding human behavior and societal structures to exploring the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Basic and applied research methods in the social sciences offer unique insights into these areas. Let's delve into some examples to understand their distinct approaches.

Basic research examples

The social construction of reality

A classic area of investigation in sociology is understanding how societies construct reality. This kind of research delves deep into the ways cultures, languages, and institutions shape our understanding of the world. It doesn't immediately aim to solve societal problems but provides essential insights into how perceptions and beliefs are formed. Research methods often used for this type of study include in-depth interviews, participant observations, and ethnographic studies.

Attachment theory in psychology

Attachment theory seeks to understand the deep emotional and physical attachment between a child and at least one primary caregiver. It delves into the nature of attachment and its implications for personal development. The research often involves longitudinal studies that observe behaviors over extended periods.

Applied research examples

Interventions for at-risk youth

Applied researchers might design programs or interventions to help at-risk youth, building on the foundational knowledge of psychology, sociology, and education. The research might involve evaluating the effectiveness of a particular program, using methods like surveys, focus groups, and pre-and-post assessments.

Communication strategies for public health

Understanding human behavior is crucial for successful public health campaigns. Researchers might study the best ways to communicate vital health information to various populations, especially in times of crisis like pandemics. Methods often include A/B testing of messages, surveys to assess message efficacy, and observational studies to gauge real-world behavior following communication campaigns.

Basic vs. applied research: A comparative analysis

The distinction between basic and applied research is not just a matter of intent or outcome; it also encompasses differences in methodologies, scopes, and approaches. Let's undertake a comparative analysis to illuminate these distinctions further, particularly in the context of the social sciences.

Purpose and motivation

Basic research is motivated by the quest for knowledge. It seeks to answer fundamental questions about human behavior, societal structures, and the interplay between various social factors. The driving force here is curiosity. In contrast, applied research is driven by the need to address specific societal or practical problems. Its purpose is to take the theoretical knowledge derived from basic research and convert it into actionable solutions.

Methodological approaches

It's important to acknowledge that there is no one universal research method that can address all potential research inquiries. Moreover, the same research methods, such as conducting interviews or engaging in inductive and deductive reasoning, can be utilized in basic and applied research, but they will differ in their scope and objectives. While applied research is more experimental or confirmatory, a basic research approach is often exploratory or explanatory in nature. Basic research methods include ethnography, in-depth interviews, or longitudinal studies to gain a deep understanding of a topic. The focus is on generating theories and understanding patterns.

Observations and note-taking are important tools for conducting exploratory research. Photo by Adolfo Félix.

Applied research, on the other hand, often employs more structured and targeted methodologies. Surveys, experiments, and evaluations are commonly used to verify propositions, assess the efficacy of interventions, or gauge public opinion. The approach is more pragmatic, seeking results that can inform decisions and guide actions.

Outcomes and results

Basic research outcomes are usually theoretical contributions: new concepts, theories, or insights into existing phenomena. The results expand the academic literature and provide a foundation for future studies.

Applied research results in tangible solutions or recommendations. The outcomes might include a new social program, policy recommendations, interventions, or communication strategies. The results are geared towards immediate implementation and often have direct implications for organizations, governments, or communities.

The interplay between basic and applied research

The discourse on basic and applied research often sets them apart, emphasizing their distinct objectives and methodologies. However, it's crucial to recognize that these research types aren't isolated from each other. They coexist in a symbiotic relationship, where the findings from basic research often provide the foundational knowledge for applied research, and the results of applied research can inspire further basic investigations.

The transition of knowledge

One of the most notable instances of the interplay is how basic research's findings become the bedrock for applied research projects. For example, a basic research study on cognitive development in children might reveal specific patterns or stages. An applied researcher, recognizing the implications of these findings, could then design educational interventions tailored to these developmental stages.

How one complements the other

Basic research pushes the boundaries of our understanding, expanding the horizon of what we know. Applied research, on the other hand, can reframe this expansive knowledge and make it relevant and actionable for society's immediate needs.

Applied research looks for actionable insights to be implemented to solve practical problems. Photo by Jose Vazquez.

But the relationship is reciprocal. Applied research can also highlight gaps in our understanding, pointing out areas where basic research is needed. For instance, if an intervention designed based on current knowledge fails to achieve its intended results, it signals to basic researchers that there might be underlying factors or dynamics not yet understood.

The dynamic continuum

Instead of viewing basic and applied research as two separate entities, it's more accurate to see them as points on a continuum. The knowledge generated by basic research flows towards applied projects, which in turn can inspire further basic investigations. This dynamic loop ensures that research in the social sciences remains both grounded in fundamental understanding and relevant to real-world challenges.