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Blue sky vs applied research

So, one of the topics that has come up from time to time concerns so-called Blue-sky research versus applied research. The image of a blue sky research project is one of a researcher or small group of researchers having fun dreaming up some cool technology but with no relation to the real world.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with this distinction. The reasons are two-fold: in my experience, the time-scales associated with a project bear no direct relation to whether the research is 'blue sky' or 'applied'; secondly the actual work done in a research project may be incremental or grand in both blue sky and applied. (In fact, given the general reluctance of people to fund blue sky research, they tend to be smaller and less grand than applied projects.)

So, here is a different, more grounded distinction that, I believe, is more authentic: Bottom-up versus top-down research.

Bottom-up means, of course, exploring from what you have and seeing if there are any serendipitous opportunities that make them themselves apparent. By its nature, you cannot predict the outcome of bottom-up work, but someone has to have some kind of intuition.

Top-down means problem directed. In my book, that is enough to make it applied. You are trying to solve a problem.

The reality dimension (i.e., is the research realistic or not) shows up independently for either. Some bottom-up projects are highly realistic, other top-down projects are somewhat unrealistic.

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