Defining Research

A clear definition of research is critical to Higher Education statistical reporting, such as the Research Activity Survey commissioned by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The internationally recognised definition is taken from the Frascati Manual, an OECD publication which has become a standard reference for R&D surveys and data collection in the OECD, EU and beyond.


The Frascati definition of research

Research and experimental development (R&D) comprise creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.

The term R&D covers three activities: basic research, applied research and experimental development.

Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.

Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.

Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on existing knowledge gained from research and/or practical experience, which is directed to producing new materials, products or devices, to installing new processes, systems and services, or to improving substantially those already produced or installed. R&D covers both formal R&D in R&D units and informal or occasional R&D in other units.

R&D must be distinguished from a wide range of activities relating to R&D with a scientific and technological basis; such activities are excluded from the definition of R&D unless they are carried out solely or primarily for R&D purposes. Pure R&D activities should have an element of novelty and the resolution of scientific and/or technological uncertainty, i.e. when the solution to a problem is not readily apparent to someone familiar with the basic stock of common knowledge and techniques for the area concerned.


General exclusions

Reference to the Frascati Manual should be made for detailed analysis of exclusions, but general exclusions to highlight are:

  • education and training other than PhD research
  • general purpose data collection (such as recording weather statistics)
  • routine testing and analysis of materials, components, products, processes, etc.
  • feasibility studies
  • policy-related studies
  • phase IV of clinical trials (unless they result in a further scientific or technological advance).