Why Every Research Portfolio Should Include Basic Science

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson visits Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to discuss learning sciences and artificial intelligence research. (Photo by PO1 Nathan Laird)

By Lt. Adam T. Biggs, USN, and Lt. Todd R. Seech, USN


Like all aspects of the military, the research and development sector thrives on a foundation of cause and effect. Applied research questions more easily match this formula because you can make concrete claims such as “this widget increases accuracy by 32 percent,” or “new training protocols have reduced Class A flight mishaps by 18 percent.” Basic science has a more indirect connection to operational outcomes, which often makes its utility easier to overlook. This oversight, however, creates a critical vulnerability in the military research and development structure that can leave operational units performing below their maximal potential.

Consider one fundamental need of military readiness: The tactics of tomorrow will be different than the tactics of today. Although this statement may have been accepted as a truism in military communities for centuries, it is not always clear how to take tangible steps toward tomorrow. Although applied science research helps to address this issue, basic science research allows us to explore tomorrow’s tactics today—making basic research an investment into our future readiness. The battlefields of tomorrow are being built as we speak, and pieces on the board can be set into motion decades in advance.

Our future capabilities will be built on projects that advance basic science. Still, there are numerous challenges between then and now that must be met and overcome. For example, how do you justify basic science expenditures amidst the flurry of immediate needs our forces face today? What kind of basic science should the military pursue? How do you evaluate the potential of a basic science project? These are the types of questions we will address here.

A 6.0 Problem in a 6.1-to-6.7 World
The Department of Defense and academia differ in how research is described. These differences can lead to confusion about different projects or research announcements, which is why it is important to understand a critical distinction in research language. Academics often use a simple division of basic or applied science. Basic science is the pursuit of knowledge to advance (or overturn) current theoretical consensus, whereas applied science is the application of basic science knowledge to a concrete problem. Defense research uses the 6.1 to 6.7 scale: science and technology activities are 6.1 to 6.3 efforts, whereas test and evaluation activities are 6.4 to 6.7 efforts.

The problem is that academic basic science—and what most people consider basic science—is not really even 6.1. This type of research is what could be called a “6.0” effort. In this sense, 6.0 describes basic science research that the National Science Foundation (NSF) would fund. Some scientists may submit to an Office of Naval Research (ONR) call for basic research with a project that does not fit because they confused 6.0 research for 6.1 research. The confusion can waste time during review, or, worse, limit the scope to which academics and other scientists seek to engage ONR collaborators. Of course, 6.0 is not actually a defense research label, but rather something used here for illustrative purposes to describe how confusion can arise between academic scientists and military scientists— especially when everything from 6.1 to 6.7 research gets lumped together as “applied.”

The difference between 6.0 and 6.1 is simply establishing that link of military relevance. Academic researchers call this distinction basic versus applied science. Many 6.0 university scientists are still doing great things to further our understanding of the universe, and military researchers can appreciate their efforts and findings. Ultimately though, the military research continuum begins at 6.1 because military research and development, even basic science research, is conducted with some more specific goals in mind.

Perhaps an ideal example of 6.0 research involves certain zoology projects. For example, biologists may study the mating habits of certain tree beetles before and after deforestation. This idea and pursuits like it are intended to create a better understanding of the world around us. The military application is not always obvious in these basic science pursuits. The catch is that if a military purpose becomes clear, it often becomes very, very clear. How atoms form bonds is a basic science question—the power of splitting an atom is a military advantage capable of ending wars.

This 6.0 problem helps highlight the first hurdle to overcome in understanding why the military should pursue basic science. Specifically, why should the military be interested in answering a 6.0 question? The answer is simple: We should not. The mating habits of tree beetles may alter our understanding of the world around us, and these studies are certainly worthy of further investigation. But other organizations—such as NSF—exist to answer questions and advance knowledge. NSF projects may change our view of the universe or develop new technology and products that revolutionize our economy. Military research organizations have a more concrete mission that directly builds on preparing our personnel for battles today and tomorrow.

Why We Need Basic Science
Definitions aside, basic science research can still have direct effects on Navy and Marine Corps policy and procedures. Basic science is how we understand the problem, and understanding the problem is a key step in finding a solution. For example, a well-known problem in military aviation is called the “Black Hole Illusion.” Aviators sometimes have to land on military air strips when there is no moon and/or minimal peripheral illumination. The illusory effect causes aviators to adopt a glide path that is too shallow, which if not recognized soon enough may cause them to crash short of the runway. We know that the Black Hole Illusion is a problem; what we do not know is what causes the illusion. What perceptual processes become altered or deceived that cause aviators to misjudge the runway and their glide slope? The Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton specializes in aerospace and medical research, and we are currently examining the issue through an ONR In-house Laboratory Independent Research project. Our basic science experiments involve perceptions of line orientations under various experimental conditions. On the surface, these experiments are basic science investigations into how humans make perceptual judgments about the slope of lines. There is no obvious military purpose—until you consider that this information could help inform new training procedures or even runway design to help aviators avoid the Black Hole Illusion and Class A mishaps (i.e., involving significant property damage or a fatality).

We need basic science because a better understanding of the problem leads to better solutions. There are many examples in addition to the aviation issues described already, but these examples all demonstrate how basic science could apply to the military. The true challenge is in quantifying the results. Cause and effect are integral to military evaluations, and applied science fits this mold more directly. Basic science efforts do not always provide clear-cut advantages in the days, weeks, or years that follow the project. For example, directed energy weapons first required substantial basic science research. Einstein laid the theoretical foundations for lasers in his paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation” in 1917. Our Navy did not field test a laser weapon system on USS Ponce (AFSB[I] 15) until 2014. Nearly 100 years of basic science advances were necessary to take Einstein’s ideas, test them, replicate the results, transition those findings to useful products, and finally create a field-ready laser system capable of military applications. Under normal circumstances, however, no project sponsor is going to be receptive to a science-to-application window of a few decades longer than the average human lifespan.

So how do we quantify basic science research in such a way that it can be appreciated in a much shorter time frame? After all, everyone involved in the research chain— from the research assistants to the project sponsors—have someone else to whom they must quantify the project results for yearly evaluations. This quantification is easy in academia if you consider project success in terms of conference presentations, papers published, and the journal impact factors of where those papers were published. Unfortunately, these metrics do not translate to military operations, where tangible improvements to naval operations are the coin of the realm. There is, however, a way to bridge the gap between these different currencies.

Making Basic Science Relevant
There is a way to make basic science more relevant to naval operations and provide appreciable metrics for military evaluation. The simple solution is to incorporate more operationally-relevant variables into studies. ONR is perhaps the world leader in supporting this particular idea, where 6.1 basic science is conducted with operational outcomes in mind. An operationally relevant variable, such as shooting accuracy, can help link even a basic science investigation to an operational environment. We gain a better understanding of the problem while also keeping our scientific initiatives firmly grounded in scenarios that will help naval operations.

This approach is often easier said than done, and direct relationships between science and operations are not always possible, but there are opportunities to enhance existing studies. For example, one study compared Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers against university undergraduates on a visual search task. The goal was to understand and identify behavioral differences in how people conduct a visual search for targets. The experiment used a simple paradigm where both TSA officers and undergraduates could identify targets, which put the two groups on equal footing. Accuracy is then an operationally relevant variable for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the research sponsor, and this study allowed for basic science investigations into the mechanisms of visual search while remaining relevant and appreciable for DHS.

A similar step can be taken toward naval relevance in visual search. Searching the road for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is another visual search process, and understanding the mechanisms of visual search could help improve procedures for clearing roads of IEDs. Accuracy and speed are variables that translate well into appreciable military terms—did you find all the IEDs, and how long did it take? Another approach is to make the stimuli match the operational environment as much as possible. Intermix the letter searches used by academic investigators with more actual roadside search scenes. This approach will not always work, especially if the scenario requires some form of expertise, but it provides an example of a way to frame basic science in more operationally-relevant terms by using more operationally relevant metrics.

Although human performance initiatives can be linked fairly easily to an operational scenario, this idea can be more difficult to apply in basic science terms for other areas. For example, chemical research may investigate how molecules bond, which could help develop new polymers that extend the durability of certain plastics. This research could still be couched in operationally relevant terms if you can align the scope of the overall problem with a military issue. Perhaps protective gear needs to be lighter or more disposable, and these new polymers will help reduce costs or extend product usability. Somewhere along the way though, there needs to be a connection between the basic science initiative and the eventual applied end goal. Identifying these links is essential; even if the product, procedure, or other outcome will be years in the making, the potential must be clear today. If not, we have fallen off the military spectrum and back into 6.0 research.

Basic science is essential for military research and development. Advances in this area are how we prepare for future battlefields that exist closer to science fiction than current science fact. Still, not all basic science should be pursued by the military. Some science endeavors remain too academic to justify a military investment. This grouping represents the “6.0” research conducted at some universities, whereas military basic science always has some relevance for current or future operations. Even if that relevance is rooted in potential more than practicality, the connection should be clear.

These ideas provide a few important things to consider. First, the military must pursue basic science. Any portfolio without some basic science research is not looking sufficiently far enough down the road. You may understand the problem today, but true leaps forward will require broader thinking, which needs a better understanding of the problem. Second, not all basic science falls within the military purview. These initiatives, while insightful and groundbreaking in their own right, can be funded by other sources. The military should pursue basic science with some potential to eventually transition into more applied research. Third, the greatest challenge to military basic science is quantifying the contribution of basic science experiments. The easiest approach is to use dependent variables that more closely align with the military mission. When these operationally relevant variables are not applicable, then the science-to-operations link must be clear. Impact can be measured in many different ways, and even if the potential will not exist for many years, justification will depend on that link and its corresponding possibilities.

Ultimately, basic science and applied science are not two opposing forces or two competing entities. They are two pedals on a bicycle, each propelling the other forward. Understanding the problem will help you find solutions, and the search for solutions can further yield insight into the problem. Operational challenges need basic science and applied science initiatives because they both help you solve the problem. Each approach is merely a different way to tackle the larger issue. One time-tested maneuver is to flank a hostile force—attack them on multiple fronts. It only makes sense for military science to make good use of an established military tactic.

About the authors:
Lt. Biggs is a research psychologist, and Lt. Seech is an aerospace experimental psychologist, both at the Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton.