What is the Difference Between Basic Research, Transnational Research and Development?

Research and development (R&D) are interconnected, cyclic, evolving, adaptive processes. The three major stages of R&D, as defined by the National Science Foundation, are as follows. The separations are not sharp. We prefer to draw an analogy to the three primary colors, yellow, red, blue, ad to think of R&D in the not for profit and for profit sectors as representing a rainbow of activities. The value of each activity is dependent on the level of creative activity in the others.

Basic research: The objective of basic research is to gain more comprehensive knowledge or understanding of the subject under study, without specific applications in mind. In industry, basic research is defined as research that advances scientific knowledge but does not have specific immediate commercial objectives, although it may be in fields of present or potential commercial interest. Understanding how a protein folds or how a specific molecule elicits a particular biological response are examples of basic research.

Transnational research (also called applied research): Transnational research is aimed at gaining the knowledge or understanding to meet a specific, recognized need, or solve a specific problem. Transnational research includes investigations oriented to discovering new scientific knowledge that has specific objectives, for example with respect to systems, products, processes, or services. Finding a better treatment or diagnostic for a disease is an example of transnational research.

Development: Development is the systematic use of the knowledge or understanding gained from basic and transnational research directed toward the eventual production of useful materials, devices, systems, or methods, including the design and development of prototypes and processes. Making a new vaccine against AIDS and testing it in animals is an example of development.

It is frequently said that technology drives basic and transnational research and that basic research fuels technological development. The truth is that this is not a linear process. Disconnected, the value to society of three phases of R&D is drastically discounted. R&D is cyclic and iterative, and frequently combinatorial. Frequently, forward progress in basic research requires a shift in focus to transnational research and to development in order to develop a method that enables the next step along the original basic research path.

C. Anthony Hunt, PhD
The University of California, San Francisco


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