"Basic research is what I am doing when I don't know what I am doing."
Wernher von Braun
I've been unable to find anything placing this quote in a specific speech, book, or article of von Braun's, but everywhere it's mentioned, it's attributed to him.
Basic research, however, is precisely that. It's pulling books off the shelf (or pages off the internet) to stoke the tiny spark of an idea that could blossom into a discovery, invention, or thesis. It's learning what others have done before you, to give direction to your real research. Basic research is what you do before you can do anything else - when you don't know what you're doing.
I first saw this quote taped to a bookshelf in the graduate office at the Space Systems Lab. It's faded, and seems to have hung there for a good long while. Presumably its original purpose was to provide encouragement and inspiration to hard-working students.