The practical value of basic PhD research

There is a growing awareness about the downsides of pursuing a PhD. During my time as a PhD student, I was regularly reminded about the challenges of the academic job market and about the doctorate’s poor financial returns on investment.

Though there are also contrary views about the degree’s value, these views often point to the practical research skills that PhD students develop and their relevance to industry. Today, PhD students are often encouraged to conduct applied research, so that they can easily communicate and transfer the results of their work.

One of the overlooked practical benefits of the PhD degree is that it offers students the opportunity to conduct curiosity-driven basic research. PhD students often have the option to focus on answering fundamental questions about why or how the universe is, the answers of which might not be easily applied to a particular industry. Counter-intuitively, I argue that basic research has economic benefits, and that these benefits should be considered when assessing the practical value of PhD studies.

Risk and uncertainty

My argument is rooted in the difference between risk and uncertainty, as originally articulated by economist Frank Knight. Risk concerns situations when we do not know the outcome of a situation but can measure the odds. For example, researchers might not have discovered the best artificial intelligence algorithms for predicting air quality, but can predict that a solution is possible; the odds of success are known.

Uncertainty on the other hand occurs when the odds of success are unknown. Basic research pursues questions with uncertain outcomes and unpredictable practical value. This often leads to the perception that money spent on basic research is wasted. However, the impacts of basic research are occasionally great, and paradoxically have huge practical applications.

One example was the research of Canadian-English computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton at the University of Toronto. In the 1980s, Hinton conducted research in artificial neural networks, what were then seen as curiosities with little practical value. Today, neural networks are the backbone of a new generation of artificial intelligence behind technologies ranging from Apple’s Siri to automated cancer detection systems.

A second example is Canadian physicist Donna Strickland, who recently won a Nobel Prize for her work in chirped optical pulses. Strickland, whose Nobel Prize winning work begun as a doctoral student, later reflected on how it took at least a decade for practical applications of her research to come into view.

Strategies for fostering basic research

Both Hinton and Strickland conducted basic research early in their academic career which did not yield practical applications until decades afterwards. In both cases, the future practical benefits to society were unknown and could not have been known or quantified at the time.

PhD studies offer the benefit of full-time research, which can become scarce later in a scholarly career. The PhD can be a vehicle for conducting and cultivating curiosity-driven research—a privilege that is not experienced elsewhere in society, yet has unique benefits.

The potential practical value of basic research, especially at the PhD level, should therefore be considered by research policymakers. However, policymakers may find it challenging to finance research activities when we cannot easily quantify the outcomes.

We can take steps to maximize the effectiveness of basic research by drawing on the ways entrepreneurs and angel investors deal with uncertainty. For example, policies can emphasize supporting a large number of promising or interesting PhD projects, rather than offering more financing for the best ones. This is a common approach taken by successful angel investors.

Alternatively, policymakers can attempt to maximize serendipity, which has been identified as aiding unintended discovery. Encouraging collaboration of PhD students across or between disciplines could increase the chance of discovery. Interdisciplinary PhD programs might further offer a way to encourage students to tackle some of the pressing issues of today’s world, which are often interdisciplinary in nature.

Regardless of approach, we must stop viewing the value of a PhD degree as purely intangible and recognize the economic and practical value it plays in basic research. Though not all PhD students can be expected to become Hinton or Strickland, basic research at the PhD level enabled their success. It can continue to enable future generations of researchers too, if we allow it.