Donald Stokes, in his book
Pasteur’s Quadrant, 25 leads a powerful
attack against this simplistic view
of science. He points out that, over
the centuries, fundamental research
has been often motivated by considerations of use—by the desire to
implement certain processes and
achieve certain goals—not (not only)
by the desire to acquire knowledge for
knowledge’s sake. His paradigmatic
example is Pasteur, who founded
modern microbiology, driven by the
practical goal of preserving food.
According to Stokes, research
should be described as a two-dimen-
sional space, as shown in Figure 1.
Stokes further argues that “Pasteur’s
Quadrant,” namely use-inspired basic
research, is increasingly prevalent in
modern research institutes. The argu-
ment of Stokes strongly resonates with
schools of engineering, or computer
science. Most of their faculty members
pursue scientific research that has a
utilitarian justification; their research
is in “Pasteur’s Quadrant.”
Any engineering department in a
modern research university is a science
and engineering department. This is
often indicated by the department’s
name: Material Science and Engineer-
ing, Nuclear Science and Engineering,
or even Engineering Science (at Oxford
University). Figure 2 describes the re-
search activities in such a department.
Faculty members perform basic use-inspired or applied research related
to the applications of their discipline.
The foundations guiding this research
and constraining the engineering design space are natural sciences—mostly
physics.a The practical goal of their research is to enable the production of
better artifacts or better processes. The
design of and experimentation with
prototypes often is an essential step
in the transfer of knowledge from research to practice, as they provide a
proof of concept, a test and validation
for theories, and a platform to experiment with design alternatives. I believe
it is the richness of the feedback loops between research and practice and between
basic research and applied research that
best characterizes top engineering departments.
The diagram in Figure 2 describes
not only engineering departments,
but also other use-oriented disciplines
such as medicine or agriculture. Furthermore, concern about impact and
use, and research in “Pasteur’s Quadrant,” are increasingly prevalent in
science departments, be it life sciences, social sciences, or physical sciences. Only a few purists would claim
that departments are weakened by
The diagram in Figure 2 clearly applies to C&I. Our discipline is use-inspired: We want to build better computing, communication, and information
systems. This occasionally motivates
use-inspired basic research (for example, complexity, cryptography), and often involves applied research (such as
architecture, databases, graphics). The
design and experimentation with prototypes is essential in system research.
C&I scientists use scientific methods in
their research; 8, 10 and there is a continued back and forth between basic and
applied research and between academic research and the development of digital products and services by industry.
c&i needs Broader foundations
C&I was lucky to develop early on
mathematical abstractions that represented important constraints on
computing devices, such as time and
space complexity; this enabled C&I to
develop useful artifacts while being
fully contained within the confines of
mathematics: The early development
of algorithms, programming languages, compilers or operating systems required no knowledge beyond C&I and
its mathematical foundations.
Mathematics continues to be
the most important foundation for
C&I: The artifacts produced by C&I
researchers and practitioners are
algorithms, programs, protocols,
and schemes for organizing information; these are mathematical or
logical objects, not physical objects.
Algorithms, programs or protocols
are useful once realized, executed
or embodied in a physical digital device; but they are mostly studied as
mathematical objects and the properties studied do not depend on their
physical embodiment. Indeed, one
might call much of C&I “mathemati-
figure 1. Pasteur’s Quadrant (adapted from stokes28).
consideration of use?
Pure applied research
use-inspired basic research
Yes Pure basic research (bohr)
figure 2. Modern engineering research.
a Using the definition of engineering as “design
under constraints.” 28