Pure and Applied

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The terms pure science and applied science began to appear in British usage some time after 1840, and were regularly used by American scientists from about 1880 through the 1930s, when pure science began to be replaced by basic or fundamental science (Kline 1995). While there is no firm consensus on how applied science differs from either pure science on the one hand, or engineering and technology on the other, distinctions made between pure and applied science are relevant to ethics because of the presence of widely held beliefs that pure science is more or less ethically innocent or neutral, and that any ethically troubling matters arise only when science is applied to practical matters.

Motives and Content

One generally recognized basis for distinguishing pure from applied science is the motives or aims of scientists: If one is engaged in science in order to increase one's understanding of the world, one is doing pure science, whereas if one is doing science in order to solve problems regarding human activity, one is doing applied science. A similar approach, more sociological, is to distinguish pure and applied science according to the setting and source of the aims directing scientific activity: Pure science is academic science, and applied science is science in commercial firms or on government projects. Scientists in academia have the freedom, within broad limits, to pursue their own aims, investigating whatever matters strike their curiosity, for however long it might take. Traditionally, their findings are their own property. Scientists working for industry or government are not at liberty to choose their own aims. They work on projects of others' choosing, and face strict limits of time and resources. Their findings belong to their employers.

So science is pure to the extent that its aims are internal to scientific practice (truth, demonstration), with minimal intrusion of external aims (money, status, social welfare). In contrast, applied science refers to science applied to external aims, typically in commercial or governmental projects.

While most scholars recognize that applied and pure science have different motives or aims, some maintain that practical motives of control and use cannot be the defining feature of applied science, because on this conception science conducted with a practical aim, engineering, and technology are all applied science. Yet the consensus from recent scholarship is that neither engineering nor technology is accurately characterized simply as applied science, because both involve forms of knowledge and skill that are not derivable from scientific theory or experiment. While engineering and technology employ science among their elements, they are distinguished from applied science by their cognitive content.

Considering cognitive content suggests that there is a second sense of the term applied science. There exist what are called the applied sciences, as the term is used, for example, in descriptions of university schools or programs. Here applied science is distinguished from basic science, a distinction based on content. Science is basic if it enhances human understanding of the class of entities with which it is concerned. Applied science refers to the sciences that start from the theories, models, and methods of basic science and use them to understand those material properties and processes that show promise of enabling the synthesis of new materials or creation of new energy-generating or transforming processes. For example, optoelectronics and electroceramics are applied sciences based particularly on the physical theories of thermodynamics and kinetics.

There is considerable overlap between these distinctions between applied science (content) and science applied (motive), because the applied sciences are ultimately motivated by practical aims of control and use. Yet making this distinction allows one to more accurately represent cases of, on the one hand, pure applied science (for example, physicists, typically in academic settings, studying the electrical properties of ceramic materials, having as their primary motive the production of knowledge) and, on the other, basic science done with a practical intent (for example, scientists employed by biotech firms who work on characterizing fundamental molecular mechanisms).

Ethical Implications

The difference in aims of pure science and science applied to practical matters suggests an important difference in the norms appropriate to these practices, specifically a difference in norms regarding proper procedure under conditions of uncertainty, when one does not know or cannot predict the outcome of some course of action.

In pure science, it is considered preferable to limit false positives (claims of an effect when none is present—also known as Type I errors) rather than false negatives (claims of no effect when an effect is present—Type II errors). That is, it is seen as worse to accept a falsehood (Type I error) than to reject a truth (Type II error). An epistemological value judgment of this sort is usually seen as healthy, cautious skepticism, a virtue when doing science.

Kristin Shrader-Frechette (1990) argues, however, that this approach is not the most rational one when applying science, at least in situations of uncertainty. In the applications of science in situations of uncertain outcomes, two types of errors are relevant: one may accept and develop an application that proves to be on balance harmful, or one may reject the development of an application that is on balance beneficial. When scientific rationality is used to evaluate situations with these kinds of possible outcomes, the result is a preference for erring in accepting developments that might be harmful, rather than for erring in rejecting developments that might prove harmless. If science is seen as seeking to maximize truth, it would seem to be most rational to push forward with the development of knowledge, or its applications, on the grounds that error, whether conceptual or practical, will be more likely discovered and then dealt with, thus further maximizing truth, whereas failure to go forward with an investigation means that the truth in that domain will not come out.

But the aim of science applied to practical matters is not the maximization of truth. If it is to be seen as the maximization of something, it is the maximization of welfare, and once welfare is a concern then rationality demands a consideration of values other than purely epistemological ones.

If one takes a consequentialist utilitarian perspective, concern focuses not only on the probability of a hypothesis being true but also on the likely consequences following from a hypothesis. Practical errors arising in the application of science can adversely affect large numbers of people. If the situation is one of genuine uncertainty, meaning that it is not possible to assign probabilities to various outcomes, and some outcomes are worse than others, it can be argued that the most rational strategy is to act as if the worst consequence that could happen will happen, and thus seek to minimize the possibility of the worst-case scenario. That is, in a situation in which it is not possible to assign probabilities to either possible beneficial consequences or possible disastrous consequences, then it is better to forego possible benefits, if doing so prevents possible disasters.

If one takes a deontological perspective such as that of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), matters of the social and legal obligation, informed consent, and the voluntariness of risk become relevant in deciding whether to apply some scientific knowledge. Shrader-Frechete concludes that, while the proper procedural norms in pure science are strictly epistemological, the proper procedural norms for applying science to practical matters are both epistemological and ethical.

Apart from consideration of the different procedural norms of pure science and science applied, some conclusions can be drawn about the general relevance to ethics of the distinctions between pure science and science applied, and basic science and applied science.

For duty-based ethical perspectives such as Kant's, and virtue-based moral perspectives with their focus on character, the distinction of pure science versus its applications, based as it is on motives for action, will have moral significance. For example, respect for the autonomy of persons would support the moral permissibility of all basic science, regardless of what might be done with the resulting knowledge. In contrast, utilitarian and other consequentialist approaches focus on foreseeable consequences rather than motives, and the pure/applied distinction will have little importance. If it can be foreseen that the knowledge gained from some basic science will most likely produce more harm than good, the motives of the scientists are beside the point: Such knowledge should not be gained, at least not in the referenced context. Those doing pure science have an obligation to consider not only how they should proceed but also whether they should proceed.

With respect to the basic/applied distinction regarding content, those for whom consequences determine the rightness of actions will not concern themselves with whether those consequences result from basic or applied science. For nonconsequentialists, pure applied science, like basic science, would always seem to be permissible, while the morality of the practical application of applied science will depend on whether those involved act upon their obligations toward others.

Beyond Science

It remains to be considered whether the previous analysis might be relevant in other areas in which the pure/applied distinction is used. Certainly it is common to speak of pure and applied ethics, pure and applied art—and, on rare occasions, distinctions may even be drawn between pure and applied engineering or technology.

With regard to ethics the pure/applied distinction can, as in science, be drawn on the basis of motives or content. With reference to motives, people pursue ethical reflection in the pure sense simply as a topic of interest in its own right, or in the applied sense when they do so in order to lead better lives. As with science, the sociological context of the former would probably be the university, of the latter a clinical or other practical setting. (In some interpretations, pursuit of the former itself leads to a better life.) With reference to content, ethics can be basic in the sense of engaged with fundamental insight into theories and principles or applied in the sense of making particular decisions. Whether and to what extent the further analysis of the different epistemological and ethical assessments of Type I and Type II errors applies remains an open question. Nevertheless, with regard to pure/applied art, it can be suggested that parallel reflections would be relevant.

With regard to engineering and technology and the pure/applied distinction, issues become more problematic. In part this is because of the application factor that is already built into these disciplines. As one observer has described it, "Pure technology is the building of machines for their own sake and for the pride or pleasure of accomplishment" (Daedalus 1970, p. 38). Samuel C. Florman (1976) refers to something similar when he analyzes "the existential pleasures of engineering." Any pure engineering or pure technology, pursued for its own sake, is nevertheless something more closely engaged with the world, and thus more directly subject to ethical assessment, than pure or basic science. It is difficult to imagine engineering or technology ever being as pure or basic in an ethically relevant sense as pure or basic science.


SEE ALSO Neutrality in Science and Technology.


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Daedalus of New Scientist [pseud.]. (1970). "Pure Technology." Technology Review 72(8): 38–45.

Feibleman, James K. (1972). "Pure Science, Applied Science, Technology: An Attempt at Definitions." In Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology, ed. Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackey. New York: Free Press.

Florman, Samuel C. (1976). The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. New York: St. Martin's Press. 2nd edition, 1994.

Kline, Ronald. (1995). "Construing Technology as Applied Science: Public Rhetoric of Scientists and Engineers in the United States, 1880–1945." Isis 86(2): 194–221.

Niiniluoto, Ilkka. (1993). "The Aim and Structure of Applied Research." Erkenntnis 38(1): 1–21.

Ravetz, Jerome R. (1971). Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. (1990). "Island Biogeography, Species-Area Curves, and Statistical Errors: Applied Biology and Scientific Rationality." Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1990, vol. 1: 447–456.