Why Applied Science Can Often Be Truly Brilliant

February 16, 2015

Heather Tallis, lead scientist, The Nature Conservancy. Image courtesy Heather Tallis/TNC.

I’ve had the chance to interact lately with university students in the natural sciences in Hong Kong, California and Georgia. These students are asking the same questions I did when I was a student. Can you do good science in an applied position (like mine)? Don’t you have to compromise scientific rigor to do applied work? Isn’t the best science done at universities?

So, to all students everywhere, I want to say one thing: People who do applied research are not less brilliant than those who sit in universities, or who do more basic research.

In fact, they can be even more brilliant.

I don’t just say this because I sit at a conservation NGO. Before I came to The Nature Conservancy, I sat at Stanford University as a senior researcher for 7 years.

In that position, I regularly interacted with people who had what many consider to be true brilliance. Incredibly smart, innovative people — but who had been taught to employ their brilliance in what can be a limited way.

Single Geniuses vs. Making Everyone a Bit of an Einstein

In the natural sciences today, there is the perception that scientific excellence lives in universities. You succeed in those universities by having thoughts that no one else has had, by establishing how you can do something that no one else can do.

This model of brilliance produces pinpoints of light, bright flashes for all to gaze at and be inspired by. We need these flashes, to be sure.

But the single-genius model is less helpful for fixing most environmental and social problems — the solutions to which often lie not in individual brilliance, but involve catalyzing and coordinating small innovative actions among thousands or even millions of people.

The light bulb was a great invention, but it didn’t change the world until there was a power grid providing electricity to every house. Both the bulb and the grid were brilliant inventions, but we hear a lot more about Thomas Edison (the bulb) than we do about whoever invented the grid (the person is so not-famous I can’t even figure out who it was).

Here’s an environmental example of the same situation from some of my colleagues. Fishery stock assessment and management is a classic realm of sophisticated, advanced science. Rigorous models have tens if not hundreds of parameters, and require Ph.D level scientists to run and interpret.

It’s costly, too: The collection of data on stocks to inform these assessments can run in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. The best assessments use large research vessels and whole teams of university professors and government scientists. These resource-heavy requirements are part of the reason that 95% of the world’s fisheries regularly go un-assessed.

For example, Atlantis is arguably the world’s best stock assessment model, and Beth Fulton, the CSIRO scientist in Australia who developed it, is truly brilliant. The model is a masterpiece of sophistication and complexity and it has had staggering success as far as these kinds of complex models go.

But it’s been applied in 20 marine fisheries globally….of the 15,000+ fisheries that need to be assessed.

To get all fisheries globally on stable footing, we need an infusion of the applied kind of brilliance, too. Capacity limitations in many fisheries will mean they will crash before someone comes around who could apply a model like Atlantis to their management.

There’s a small group of scientists taking a very different approach, in another version of what I see as true brilliance. Jeremy Prince (an academic), Noah Idechong (a Pew Fellow) and Steven Victor (an NGO scientist) are starting in Palau: small, yes, but promising.

Instead of requiring complex, integrated foodweb ecosystem models and large research vessels, they are piloting a method that requires a knife, a ruler and some fishermen. You can also just walk into a fish market and use it.

The trick here is that the science builds on existing data — reams of it, on the life history traits of different species and size at reproductive maturity. So Prince, Idechong and Victor are relying on the brilliance of tens of point-of-light scientists who have come before and done the pure science to define how fish grow and when they become reproductively mature.

The equally brilliant and novel advance here is synthesizing that knowledge and applying it in an entirely different way that’s simple and effective.

The equally brilliant and novel advance here is synthesizing that knowledge and applying it in an entirely different way that’s simple and effective.

Heather Tallis

Basically, you cut open a fish, and measure its gonads.

Doing this across a decent sample size reveals how many fish being caught are in their reproductive prime, and can help fishermen to adjust the size of the fish they are keeping to keep more baby-makers in the water.

This method is the “grid” for fishery stock assessment. It takes the discoveries of top-notch scientists and uses the brains of other top-notch scientists to put them in the hands of thousands of fishermen.

Now, this method is not going to get published in Nature. These scientists are unlikely to win a prize from a prestigious scientific society.

But I think they should. This is true brilliance. It’s just a different kind from that which we normally celebrate.

NGO scientists are often the first to call each other out as second-rate. And yes, crappy science happens at NGOs, but it also happens at universities. And yes, brilliant science is done at universities, but it’s also done at NGOs. We need to change the stereotypes in the natural sciences, which don’t match the facts.

How Do We Change the Prejudice Against Applied Science?

Encourage the best students to do applied work, if they so choose.

Stop giving the impression that an applied career equals second-rate research and scientific death.

Move beyond the idea that complexity and uniqueness are the only top hallmarks of good science, and recognize elegance and relevance as equally important.

These are not insurmountable changes. Other top ranking fields do all of these things well — health, for example.

Leading researchers are acting doctors. They are learning through trials with real people who have real health problems. Leading scientists in the field are even more deeply heralded if what they discover is translated into standard practice in hospitals that serve thousands — not a bonus we regularly bequeath to applied natural scientists.

The first Nobel Prize in medicine went to Emil Adolf von Behring for the development of a diphtheria vaccine; cutting edge medical research trained on the outcome of protecting all humans from an infectious disease. Many Nobel Prizes in medicine since then have elevated people whose research allowed widespread use of scientific novelty in saving the lives of millions. It doesn’t get more applied than that.

The tech world gets it, too. In information technology, success is determined by how rapidly and extensively an innovation can spread, and brilliance in innovation is judged on how quickly a discovery can transform the lives of millions.

In the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2014 list of 35 Innovators under 35, arguably every advance is a version of applied science; discovering solutions to human problems or figuring out how to scale someone else’s invention.

The people MIT notes as visionaries are developing nano-particles that improve drug delivery, imaging brain seizures to allow better treatment, replicating the sticky stuff made by carnivorous plants and using it to repel bacteria or other unwanted critters, making better batteries to reduce China’s air pollution, and so on.

Closer afield, the Nobel Committee felt that the contributions of climate scientists in the regular IPCC reports had such important applications to the future of humanity that they awarded them the Nobel Peace Prize. The award was given “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” In other words, applied science at its peak.

These kinds of translations from insight to uptake and impact don’t happen on their own. Some scientists somewhere have to actually think about them, and formulate the advances that let the findings of prime intellect fall into the hands and lives of millions.

Applied science seems to sit comfortably at the pinnacle of excellence in many other fields. What’s so special about the natural sciences, then? Nothing.

Applied science can be brilliant and rigorous, wherever it’s done. Let’s stop telling students — and ourselves — otherwise.

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  1. As an undergraduate student, I cannot explain how reassuring this was to read. Applied science is just as important, and sometimes more important than, prestigious basic science that tends to bask in the limelight. Scientists conducting applied research play a critical role in the [scientific] world that promotes the expansion of knowledge while increasing the validity and reliability of basic scientific findings. Most people would argue that applied science is merely secondary— and that’s the premise of the stigma. Although, without applied science, what would be the purpose of basic science? Science, in general, is a continuous cycle of basic and applied science that rely on each other for the advancement of knowledge. Society needs to recognize the importance of scientific applications in order to revitalize its reputation that it’s acquired over time..and it all starts with education systems spreading awareness and appreciation of applied science across the globe.

    Thank you so much for the wonderful article! I will definitely be sharing this one.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This was an amazing read and I’ve already shared it multiple times. As a Program Director at a nonprofit whose mission it is to improve the health of children, I cannot tell you how great it was to read this. Our organization is constantly trying to use the latest and greatest science and transform the findings into simple, effective and fun materials that can be implemented on the ground by thousands of people. It’s complicated and messy…no one size fits all…but it’s a completely worthwhile effort, which often goes unacknowledged. So, thank you for bringing this to the surface and for the work you do!

  3. I enjoyed heathers presentation at the SAF convention and would like to send some additional information if I had her e-mail?

    Please provide her e-mail –


    Bob Williams CF