Origin of Phrase –Basic Research–?

October 27th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I am looking for the earliest reference to the phrase “basic research.”

I’ll start off the bidding with:

J. Huxley. 1935. Science and Social Needs. Harper & Bros. Publishers, New York.

6 Responses to “Origin of Phrase –Basic Research–?”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Raising the ante:

    Science 20 June 1924

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  3. David Bruggeman Says:


    At some point I suspect the phrase emerged from the pure vs. applied research/pure vs. applied science arguments that go back hundreds of years. I’m assuming you’re looking for that period of emergence?

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi Dave-

    I hypothesize (along the lines that you suggest) that the term arised as a political response by scientists to the unwillingness of policy makers to support “pure” research that was disconnected from societal needs. The term “basic” can be interpreted as “pure research” but also as “fundamental research” as in “fundamental to societal needs.” Hence, it has served as a stratgeically ambiguous term, culiminating with is broad acceptance in and following Vannevar Bush’s “Science: the Endless Frontier.”

    I would be surprised if the term was used before 1900. But I am very interested in where it got its start — I’d guess in the UK around 1920 (????) …

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  7. Lab lemming Says:

    My guess is that it will be pre-dated by the term “recherche fondamentale”, which I suspect appeared in France during the Great War.

    France was a leading area of radionuclide research at that time, and thus I suspect the debate of applied research (e.g. portable X-ray units) vs. fundamental research (what is radioactivity) would have started there.

    But I suck at book research, so I can’t dish up any references to back this up.

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  9. David Bruggeman Says:

    An important component of this examination will be the opinion of the scientific establishment with respect to the terms pure and applied compared to basic and applied. Because (and I think I’m remembering this from David Hounshell – he might be useful in answering these questions) the scientific establishment was (and perhaps still is) firmly behind the pure/basic camp. So when did they realize their traditional patronage wasn’t sufficient and that the good political move was for ambiguity? Was this the same as going with the term basic research?

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Dave- The Daniels and Wise articles cited in the below paper discuss the transition for pure to basic research (as does our paper to a degree).

    Pielke, Jr., R.A., and R. Byerly, Jr., 1998: Beyond Basic and Applied. Physics Today, 51(2), 42-46.