HIBAR research: What is it and how can it be reinvigorated?

By Lorne A. Whitehead, Scott H. Slovic and Janet E. Nelson

1. Lorne A. Whitehead (biography)
2. Scott H. Slovic (biography)
3. Janet E. Nelson (biography)

How can we recognize and encourage investigations that holistically fuse fundamental and applied research on a problem of interest in a manner that is both (a) integrative and recursive and (b) highly collaborative with non-university experts?


We refer to this form of research as “Highly Integrative Basic And Responsive” (HIBAR). It adds deep university-society engagement to the work that Donald Stokes named “Pasteur’s quadrant” (Stokes 1997) and others have called “use-inspired basic research”.

As shown in the figure below, basic research projects emphasize one end of a range of research excellence, while applied research projects emphasize the other. The two distributions overlap only weakly, so the intermediate portion is often underemphasized. HIBAR research fills and bridges that gap, linking basic and the practical research in an iterative, recursive manner.

HIBAR research bridges and fills the gap between basic and applied research, enabling the recursive flow of ideas that lead to breakthroughs (Whitehead et al., 2020)

HIBAR research is defined by eight elements shown in the figure below.

A 4-category, 8-element assessment chart for identifying HIBAR research projects (Whitehead et al., 2020)

HIBAR projects comprise all 8 of these elements, perhaps not equally, but at least to a significant extent. Particularly interesting are the four shaded elements, because their simultaneous inclusion in a research project often produces creative tension which, while challenging, is also highly generative. For example, numerous HIBAR research projects yielded Nobel prizes.

The HIBAR label is most helpful when describing projects that are neither too small nor too big. At the small extreme, simple research tasks might not benefit from all eight of the HIBAR excellence elements, so the HIBAR distinction might not be useful at that level.

At the opposite extreme, some major efforts might contain numerous separate research projects that as a whole include all eight HIBAR excellence elements, but not individually. In such cases, the creative tension and synergy of their interaction would be missing, negating that key impact-enhancing aspect of HIBAR research.


HIBAR research had its heyday in the last century in the corporate laboratories of Bell telephone company, Xerox, IBM, General Electric, 3M, Honeywell, and others, where it has since largely declined. How can society respond to counteract this problematic reduction in HIBAR research?

This general form of research is common in numerous excellent government laboratories, but realistically there is little opportunity for growth there. University research is different in two ways. First, the university research system is vastly larger than that of government laboratories. Second, while HIBAR research has long flourished at universities, it has been a relatively small fraction of overall research – some estimate about 5%. Thus there is considerable potential for bolstering HIBAR research at universities without fundamentally changing them. We argue that the fraction of HIBAR research projects at research universities should be increased so as to reinvigorate this critically important research component. We suggest that this goal is both feasible and already underway.

Specifically, we recommend increasing it fourfold – from about 5% of university research projects today, to about 20%. Notably, this would not reduce basic or applied research – and it would significantly add to their positive impact on society.

Achieving this transition requires only a small shift in the culture of the university system. However, even a small culture shift requires great effort, and is most efficiently achieved by combining both top-down and grassroots efforts. The top-down action is primarily to organize and motivate the university sector as a whole, developing various aspects of strategy and thereby creating opportunities for the emergence of grass-roots teams that can reinforce this messaging, to help colleagues discover HIBAR research opportunities, and to successfully start and carry out associated HIBAR research projects.

The transition has to be sector-wide because of the interconnected nature of universities. For example, researchers often relocate from university to university. In addition, reviews of departmental performance, submitted manuscripts, and grant proposals, and promotion and tenure cases are provided by faculty members at other universities. Also critical is the policies of research funding agencies. Therefore, attempts to change the culture of a university are quite unlikely to succeed in isolation.

To summarize, as with all organizational change there are two important requirements for success:

  1. Change efforts must persist with sufficient intensity and for enough time to establish a “new normal”, whereby the majority perceive the new state of affairs as an improvement that is worth defending.
  2. Change efforts should integrate top-down administrative efforts with a strong grass-roots component that includes, from the start, numerous active supporters throughout the organization.


We contend that the challenges facing society require a reinvigoration of HIBAR research. What do you think? What do you see as the overlap with systems thinking, inter- and trans-disciplinary research, action research, convergence research, team-based research, and other approaches that also aim to tackle aspects of these challenges?

To find out more and for an extensive list of references:
Whitehead, L. A., Slovic, S. H., Nelson, J. E. (2020) Re-invigorating Hibar research for the 21st Century: Enhancing fundamental research excellence in service to society. Technology and Innovation, 21, 2: 153-167. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.21300/21.2.2020.153

HIBAR Research Alliance. (Online): https://hibar-research.org/

Stokes, D. E. (2011). Pasteur’s quadrant: Basic science and technological innovation. Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, United States of America.

Biography: Lorne Whitehead PhD is a professor of physics, and special advisor on innovation, entrepreneurship and research at the University of British Columbia in Canada. His disciplinary research focuses on optics, lighting and vision. He is a fellow of the Optical Society of America, the Illuminating Engineering Society and the National Academy of Inventors, and serves on the board of administration of the International Commission on Illumination in Vienna. He holds 130 US patents that find application in computer screens, televisions and lighting products. He has launched several spin-off companies and licensed existing organizations. He has served in the university leadership positions of associate dean, dean pro tem, provost, and leader of education innovation. He is currently helping to initiate the HIBAR Research Alliance of universities cooperating to encourage more and better HIBAR research, which optimally combines the excellence of fundamental research with a practical intent to solve societal problems.

Biography: Scott H. Slovic PhD is University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Idaho, USA. He is also a Faculty Fellow in the Office of Research and Economic Development, helping to catalyze and recognize the university’s cross-disciplinary, international, and public impact research efforts. His own work focuses on the perception and communication of information in the contexts of humanitarian and environmental crises.

Biography: Janet E. Nelson PhD is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) and Vice-President at the University of Newcastle in Australia. She works closely with faculty to catalyze, encourage, and support research and scholarly activities; to support the creation of new knowledge; to promote the use of this knowledge; and to ensure its integrity. She has a keen focus on building and supporting multidisciplinary teams and growing the research enterprise. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

2 thoughts on “HIBAR research: What is it and how can it be reinvigorated?”

  1. Thank you for your thought-provoking article. To your prompt re overlap with transdisciplinary research, the chart of the eight elements of HIBAR research provided an interesting heuristic. I found myself thinking through the right-side column (fundamental) as single-discipline research and the left-side column (applied) as cross/multi/inter/trans-disciplinary. (I know this is an imperfect analogy as your definition of applied research includes partnership with society and transdisciplinary research doesn’t necessarily.) Furthermore, in my analogy I plugged artists and artist-researchers into the right-side column, imagining transdisciplinary teams that include artists. The chart’s premises held up in this analogy, except for numbers 3 and 5; the methods of such a team would be multiple and varied, and the partners would include researchers from other disciplines as well as hands-on practical efforts.


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