School & District Management

Pasteur Praised as Thinker Who Bridged Basic-Applied Gap

By Debra Viadero — March 19, 2003 3 min read
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In the 1850s, winemakers in France and throughout the rest of Europe were facing a problem that threatened them with economic ruin. One barrel of grape juice would turn into perfectly good wine, while another from the same vineyard or region would go bad. Still a third would become vinegar.

Asked to look into the situation, the French scientist Louis Pasteur made a discovery: Fermentation was a process carried out by living microorganisms. Up until then, most experts assumed the process was a chemical one.

That realization eventually led Pasteur to formulate germ theory. Germ theory, in turn, spurred the development of pasteurization, better methods for large- scale brewing of wine and beer, antiseptic routines in hospitals, and the production of vaccines to prevent contagious diseases.

To the late Donald E. Stokes, Pasteur’s career seemed to be the ideal illustration of how a scientist could undertake serious, scholarly research to understand natural phenomena and use it simultaneously to solve practical problems.

“The mature Pasteur never did a study that wasn’t applied, as he laid out a whole new branch of science,” wrote Mr. Stokes, a longtime professor and former dean at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Profound Influence

That’s why Mr. Stokes chose the celebrated scientist to carry the title of his 1997 book Pasteur’s Quadrant, a trim volume that argues for joining the separate worlds of basic and applied research in all fields of scientific inquiry.

The Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank where Mr. Stokes was a resident scholar at the time, published only 1,000 hardcover and 6,500 paperback copies of the book.

Despite the small print run—and the fact that education research is barely mentioned at all—the book has profoundly influenced the educational researchers casting about for ways to produce “usable” knowledge.

“The Stokes book gave people a new language for talking about doing research that involved observing and studying problems of practice,” said Susan Goldman, a professor of psychology in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It gave people a way of talking about those studies that didn’t take on this connotation that they were not doing fundamental research.”

For at least half a century, thinkers in science and public policy have grown used to separating scientific endeavors into two camps.

In the more exalted “basic” camp, researchers are striving to contribute to the knowledge base in the field, whether that might be developing germ theory or understanding how children learn to add and subtract.

In the “applied” camp, the job of researchers is to devise practical applications and technical innovations involving basic knowledge.

Typically, the thinking has been that research progresses along a continuum that begins with basic work and moves to coming up with applications.

“Essentially, as long as you view research as falling on a continuum from basic to applied, you’re doomed to fail in an effort to join the two,” said Lauren B. Resnick, a University of Pittsburgh cognitive psychologist. “Stokes said to think of the goals of use and knowledge-building as two different dimensions that you get if you build a two-by-two table.”

The late scholar called the category of work at the intersection of those worlds “use-inspired basic research.” Looking at scientific inquiry in that more realistic light, he argued, could help forge a new compact between science and government.

Donald Stokes did not live long enough to watch his thinking play out in the field of education research. He died of leukemia in 1997 at age 69, less than a year before Pasteur’s Quadrant was published.

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