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The statutory mission of the Institute is to expand knowledge of education in order to provide decision makers and the general public with information on:

  1. the condition and progress of education in the United States
  2. practices that improve academic achievement and access to education opportunities
  3. the effectiveness of Federal and other education programs

These three functions are the responsibility of the organizational units of the Institute created by statute:

An organizational chart shows the Office of the Director and the National Board for Education Sciences paired at the top level.  Below are four boxes: National Center for Education Statistics, National Center for Education Research, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, and the National Center for Special Education Research.

The National Center for Education Statistics is responsible for gathering and reporting information on the condition and progress of education. The National Center for Education Research is responsible for funding research on practices that improve academic achievement and education opportunities. The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance is responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of Federal and other education programs, and for disseminating information to the general public. The Director provides leadership and proposes priorities, which are approved by the National Board for Education Sciences.

Note that under the statute the activities of the Institute are carried out in order to provide useful information to people who have to make decisions about education practices, programs, and policies. In other words, the customers of the Institute are, by law, practitioners, and policy makers, as well as the general public. We are to serve their needs by providing information that will allow them to make better decisions and engage in more effective actions in the realm of education.

Some federal research agencies, by statute, are primarily about the business of basic research and the search for fundamental knowledge. The NSF, for example, has a mission "to promote the progress of science." Other agencies, such as the Institute of Education Sciences, are primarily about practical action, solving real-world problems, and providing useful information to the public at large

One way of making this distinction is in the terms introduced in the infrequently read but oft cited 1997 book by Stokes, called Pasteur's Quadrant - Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Stokes described three categories of research based on two binary dimensions: first, a quest for fundamental understanding, and second, a consideration of use. The work of the theoretical physicist, Niels Bohr, exemplifies the quadrant in which researchers search for fundamental knowledge, with little concern for application. The research of Louis Pasteur, whose studies of bacteriology were carried out at the behest of the French wine industry, characterizes the work of scientists who, like Bohr, search for fundamental knowledge, but unlike Bohr, select their questions and methods based on potential relevance to real world problems. The work of Thomas Edison, whose practical inventions define the 20th century, exemplifies the work of scientists whose stock and trade is problem solution. They cannibalize whatever basic and craft knowledge is available, and conduct fundamental research when necessary, with choices of action and investment driven by the goal of solving the problem at hand as quickly and efficiently as possible.

  Considerations of Use
Low High
Quest for Fundamental Understanding Yes Pure Basic Research (Bohr) Use-Inspired Basic Research (Pasteur)
No   Pure Applied Research(Edison)

Each of the scientific quadrants identified by Stokes is important to the common good. Those who argue for the value of basic research have no trouble finding examples of work inspired only by intellectual curiosity that turned out to be extremely practical. Bohrs' work on quantum physics is a case in point.

Without in any way diminishing the value of basic research, whether use-inspired or not, I want to argue for the importance of activities in Edison's quadrant, particularly for topics in which there is a large distance between what the world needs and what realistically can be expected to flow from basic research, and for topics in which problem solutions are richly multivariate and contextual.

Education is such an area: a field in which there is a gulf between the bench and the trench, and in which the trench is complicated by many players, settings, and circumstances. Choose what you consider to be the most exciting developments from basic research in Bohrs' or Pasteur's quadrants that are relevant to education. I'll pick developments in cognitive neuroscience. Paint the rosiest scenario you dare for basic scientific progress in the topic you've chosen over the next 15 years. Then ask yourself what would need to be done to translate those imagined findings into applications that would have wide and powerful effects on education outcomes. I don't know about you, but I'm not optimistic that the results of basic research, even if the findings are powerful, will flow directly and naturally into education. Goodness! Education hasn't even incorporated into instruction what we know from basic research about the effects of massed versus distributed practice - and I learned about that in a psychology course I took in 1962.

Yes, the world needs basic research in disciplines related to education, such as economics, psychology, and management. But education won't be transformed by applications of research until someone engineers systems and approaches and packages that work in the settings in which they will be deployed. For my example of massed versus distributed practice, we need curricula that administrators will select and that teachers will follow that distributes and sequences content appropriately. Likewise, for other existing knowledge or new breakthroughs, we need effective delivery systems. The model that Edison provides of an invention factory that moves from inspiration through lab research to trials of effectiveness to promotion and finally to distribution and product support is particularly applicable to education.

In summary, the Institute's statutory mission, as well as the conceptual model I've just outlined, points the Institute toward applied research, Edison's quadrant.

I've labeled this chart, "Edison's quadrant, mostly," because I understand that it is important to nurture the development of basic knowledge related to education, particularly in areas in which other science agencies and major foundation's aren't involved. Thus, when resources permit, the Institute will support work that examines underlying process and mechanisms, and work that is initiated by the field. For instance, the President's budget request for the Institute for fiscal year 04 includes a healthy amount of money for a field-initiated competition. In addition, many of our new funding programs that are squarely focused on application, such as our program in preschool curriculum evaluation, provide for grantees to carry out parallel research that examines underlying processes.

That said, I reiterate that the primary focus for the Institute will be on work that has high consideration of use, that is practical, that is applied, that is relevant to practitioners and policy makers.