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What Is the Difference Between Applied and Pure Science?


People working in the sciences often need to discuss both applied science and pure science. Here we discuss the differences between these two types of science, and how they can often be used in combination to make a convincing argument.

Major differences

Pure science—which is also called fundamental science—seeks to understand how the universe works. It is the result of basic research that generates new scientific information by exploring the unknown. A classic example of pure science research is understanding what causes cells to divide, which has been studied since the late 1800s.

Applied science uses existing scientific information to develop practical solutions for real-world problems. A modern example of applied science research is developing drugs to prevent cell division in specific cell types—such as breast cancer cells. Medical doctors also use applied science to determine the best course of treatment for individual patients.

Because pure science explores the unknown, the specific challenges of completing a research project are often unknown, and the results are unknown before the project is complete. Because of these uncertainties, pure science research often takes significant time to complete, and requires substantial troubleshooting. In the classic example of understanding what causes cells to divide, this involved developing reliable techniques to grow different types of cells in a Petri dish, and solving many other basic problems. This preliminary work is unprofitable, so pure science research is primarily funded by government agencies such as the US National Science Foundation and the European Research Council. Universities provide additional support for researchers, as do some charitable organizations.

In contrast, applied science research is primarily funded by companies hoping to make a profit. These companies typically take published results from pure science research, and try to develop a product or service that customers will want to purchase. For example, the biotechnology company Genentech developed the drug Herceptin based on the discovery of the HER2 protein. In some breast cancer patients, excessive copies of the HER2 protein sit on the surface of tumor cells and promote uncontrolled cell division. The drug Herceptin is an antibody that binds to the HER2 protein and helps inhibit cancer progression. Herceptin was approved for clinical use in 2015, and has since improved the breast cancer survival rate for nearly 3 million women.

Bringing any drug to market involves a massive financial investment. Beyond the lengthy process of developing a potentially effective drug, and producing it reliably, safely, and in large quantities, companies need to coordinate and pay for clinical trials involving thousands of patients. These trials need to show that the drug is safe, and that it is effective as intended. For potential cancer treatments, this often involves showing that a drug improves survival when combined with other treatments, or that it improves survival for patients with no other options. Small differences in study design—such as enrolling patients who may not benefit or only enrolling a small number of patients who meet very stringent requirements—can lead to no statistical significance and no approval to sell the drug.

The shrinking gap

Our collective understanding of the natural world—and our ability to manipulate it—has rapidly expanded over the past few decades. As a result, the gap between pure science and applied science has shrunk. For example, Darwin's work on evolution was published in 1859 and Mendel's work on genetics was published in 1866. It wasn't until 1973—more than a century later—that scientists were able to add DNA to a living creature to change its characteristics, producing bacteria that were resistant to a specific antibiotic.

These and many other discoveries contributed to the relatively rapid development of the breast cancer drug Herceptin. According to UCLA Health, Herceptin was the result of work done from 1998 through 2015 by researchers at the UCLA School of Medicine, the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, and the biotechnology company Genentech. Many other targeted therapies—which precisely identify and attack diseased cells based on their chemical characteristics—are being developed. This work is based on decades of pure science research, and is made possible by technological advances achieved through applied science research.

Nowadays, it's quite common for academic researchers to partner with corporations so that the benefits of their research can be brought to market, for some combination of the public good and profit.

Using pure science and applied science to support an argument

The current abundance of fundamental knowledge and useful techniques means that researchers need to meet high standards before their projects receive financial support, or are accepted for publication in high quality journals. Before potentially investing millions of dollars in an applied science project, corporate investors what to know that it has a solid basis in pure science, and that it has a high probability of success or a high potential payout that justifies the risk.

This abundance of knowledge and technology—along with increased pressure to publish—has also made many non-profit organizations more hesitant to fund high-risk projects in the pure sciences. This is despite the fact that exploring the truly unknown is inherently high risk. For example, the US National Institutes of Health funds research on many well-defined cancers, but can be reluctant to fund research on poorly understood diseases like fibromyalgia (characterized by widespread muscle pain and tenderness). Likewise, space missions to Mars receive a lot of attention because it is easy to imagine what might be learned, while missions to the surface of Venus or the bottom of Earth's oceans receive less support because it is harder to imagine what we don't understand. However, a mission to the surface of Venus or the bottom of the ocean may reveal something that is truly unknown—such as bizarre life forms that can survive in extreme conditions—and thus open up entirely new fields of study.

Therefore, researchers who are truly exploring the unknown must be especially persuasive. This can often be achieved by showing that a project will start with well-established technologies and an understanding of some related phenomenon, then sharing plausible ideas for the wondrous things that might be discovered and how they could fundamentally change our collective understanding of the world. It also helps to have experience or collaborators that will aid in making the adjustments that will likely be necessary for success.

Let's explore some examples of how pure science and applied science can be used in combination to make a convincing argument.


  • Physician explaining the need for a specific treatment: "The pancreatic cancer cells from the patient tested as HER2 positive, and share many other genetic characteristics with HER2-positive breast cancer cells. Therefore, Herceptin is being prescribed as an adjuvant treatment, in addition to surgery and chemotherapy."
  • Engineer proposing a 3D printer for houses: In impoverished communities around the world, there is an urgent need for sturdy, affordable housing. Using existing technologies, we can design a 3D printer that constructs high-quality homes with mortar produced from local materials. Such a 3D printer could be small enough to transport by truck, and could print a home of perhaps 500 square feet in about 24 hours, at a cost of perhaps $5,000.
  • Scientist justifying research on naked mole rats in 1990: Naked mole rats are extremely odd mammals. These mouse-sized rodents are nearly hairless, nearly blind, and live in underground colonies of about 100 individuals. A recent DNA "fingerprinting" study revealed high levels of inbreeding in wild colonies. These data are consistent with a eusocial colony structure, in which one female (the "queen") breeds with a small number of males. To better understand these animals—and the behavioral and genetic adaptations that allow them to live and reproduce under such unusual conditions—our research group will develop methods to maintain reproductively active colonies in captivity. We expect to adopt many of the techniques used to successfully maintain colonies of meerkats, moles, beavers, and other mammals that spend significant time underground. Simple techniques such as tagging will allow for detailed behavioral studies, and simple DNA tests can reveal which individuals have reproduced and which genetic traits have survived natural selection under such extreme conditions.
  • Scientist justifying research on naked mole rats in 2021: Naked mole rats have the longest lifespan of any mammal of its size, typically living for 10-30 years. In addition, naked mole rats are almost completely resistant to cancer, and their risk of death does not increase with age—meaning that they don't age in the traditional way. To better understand these exceptional characteristics, our research group will inactivate specific genes in pluripotent stem cells from naked mole rats, to identify genes that contribute to their increased longevity. These findings may eventually contribute to improvements in human health.

With the shrinking gap between applied science and pure science, this is truly an amazing time to be involved in the sciences. As you can see from the examples above, it is often useful to discuss both applied science and pure science in order to make a convincing argument.

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