In this lesson, we will explore the concept of research and development. You will also learn about its different forms and how it affects our daily lives.
Definition: Research & Development
Let's begin with a question that has an obvious answer. What's the difference between a wall phone (circa 1907) and an iPhone 5? A couple of things come to mind: email, digital photos, Internet, Wi-Fi, GPS, texting, and mobile conversations. But, the real question is: How did we get from the wall phone to the iPhone 5? The answer is, of course, research and development (R&D).
Let's take a closer look at the concept. Research and development refers to a wide range of business, governmental, and academic activities designed to gather new knowledge. Sometimes, the new knowledge leads to new products or processes, and sometimes it doesn't. The purpose of R&D is to expand the frontiers of human understanding and to improve our society as a whole. In other words, to supply the innovations that took us from the wall phone to the iPhone 5. R&D activities can be subdivided into three categories: pure research, applied research, and development activities.
Pure (or basic) research is directed at understanding what something is or how it works. There is no immediate expectation of a short-term payoff. Basically, pure research is an attempt to satisfy our curiosity about something unknown. Hopefully, there will be marketable products further down the line, but there is no guarantee. For example, a federal agency recently announced a $70 million dollar research program to develop brain implants to help people with brain injuries and disorders. The initial research is to be directed at learning how the medical issues are reflected in brain activity. If that can be determined, then perhaps advanced medical technology can be invented. But first, they have to find out more about how the brain works.
Applied research can be thought of as a second step in the research process. It uses existing information, methods, knowledge, and techniques to solve practical problems. In other words, we already know what something is and how it works. Now we need to find a way to turn that knowledge into a marketable product, or to solve some other problem. For example, NASA's space shuttle program involved solving problems that no one had addressed previously and required the creation of new technologies. Other companies and federal agencies used the knowledge gained from NASA to develop their own new products. For example, each year NASA publishes a list of commercial products that were developed from their basic research. It includes things such as firefighting gear, improved radial tires, enriched baby food, and many other common household items.
Development activities are usually directed at improving existing products and processes rather than creating new ones. A quick look at the website of any motorcycle manufacturer will reveal numerous improvements in that year's models. For example, the Harley-Davidson Sportster model for 2014 received major brake system improvements. Similarly, the Yamaha FJR for 2013 was given new traction control, cruise control, and digital displays. All of these changes required revisions of the product designs and production processes.
Research and development is about knowledge and product innovations. Pure research tries to understand what something is and how it works. It is the pursuit of knowledge without an expectation of an immediate reward. In contrast, applied research uses existing knowledge to create new products or processes. The third component of R&D, development activities, pursues improvements in existing products and processes.