Pasteurs Quadrant: Research for the Common Good

Author: Notre Dame ESTEEM

Researchers are always on a search for new knowledge, but they may have different aims that lead them to choose different kinds of research questions. Donald E. Stokes’ book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation, published in 1997, describes four ways that the desire for fundamental understanding and the desire for commercial application can guide research.

In one quadrant, represented by activities such as birdwatching, the person is curious to gain information but not interested in either groundbreaking discovery or commercial application. In another, called Bohr’s Quadrant after the physicist who laid the foundations of quantum mechanics and atomic physics, the researcher is interested in knowledge without any consideration of application. In a third, called Edison’s Quadrant after the prolific inventor, the investigation is aimed at creating a useful product, such as the phonograph or light bulb, rather than a theory of how it works.  

Pasteur’s Quadrant is named for the microbiologist who demonstrated the germ theory of disease that led, among other things, to the pasteurization of milk that prevented disease. The researcher is interested both in fundamental discovery and in using that discovery for commercial benefit. Many scientists today choose research questions with the potential of providing such a combination. Of course, pure research for its own sake also can lead to breakthrough products later – Bohr’s work, for example, later led to the invention of the transistor. As Pasteur himself said, “There are no such things as applied sciences, only applications of science.”

When researchers in engineering, science, technology and mathematics make discoveries with potential for important commercial applications, they can choose to license the product to others for development, collaborate with others in the process, or start their own company. They become entrepreneurs. The ESTEEM Program equips them to add those dimensions to their technical expertise that can advance the success of their discovery for social good.