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  • James Frohlich

Pure vs. Applied Research: A Ukrainian Example

One of the biggest challenges former academics face is navigating the difference between pure and applied research.

Pure research projects start with an interesting question that may not have an immediately useful application. Example from today's news: "How has Ukrainian national identity been constructed over the past 100 years, and by whom?"

Clearly, the answers to this question have all kind of real-world relevance. Supporters of Russian leader Vladimir Putin are minimizing the notion of a unique Ukrainian national identity, while many ordinary Ukrainians are demonstrating the relevance of this identity through their actions on the battlefield.

Still, answers to this pure research question do not have immediate, actionable relevance to a specific dilemma faced by Ukrainian policymakers. Although they might inform Ukrainian actions, they do not provide direct, actionable guidance on what to do now.

Applied research questions, by contrast, begin with a problem faced by a specific actor - an individual, a business, an agency of some kind - and then work backwards.

For example: Ukrainian political leaders, holed up in their Kyiv fortifications under Russian bombardment, are surely debating every day how to speak to the public.

More specifically, they need to know how they should talk about the Ukrainian nation, patriotism and identity.

How can they differentiate themselves from the Russian national identity that Putin is promoting without offending Ukraine's Russian-speaking citizens? After all, it is those same Ukrainian Russian-speakers whose support has proved so crucial to the country's defense while providing so perplexing to Russian leaders.

In this case, the answers will have to be specific, actionable, and immediately relevant to the choices Ukrainian politicians will make today and tomorrow. What phrases, historical allusions, and terminology should they use when appearing on Ukrainian TV, radio, or social media posts? What words should they use, and which should they avoid? What kind of specific messaging will signal a robust defense of the Ukrainian national idea while ensuring the rhetorical inclusion of all Ukraine's citizens?

Although the answers to this second question can be informed by the answers to the first, the two are by no means identical.

Many social scientists, especially at the more elite academic institutions, are focused on research for research's sake. In these contexts, applied research is often considered a lower form of activity - cynical, utilitarian, grubby, service-provision. In these institutions, university salaries allow faculty to study the kind of pure research questions that private or governmental entities won't pay for.

Migrating from academia to the private sector is a journey, and one of the most important things we migrants must learn is how to reframe the questions we ask.

We need to learn how to be useful, not just insightful. Somebody, somewhere, needs to find our research sufficiently useful to spend scarce time and money on our efforts.

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