Every academic journal article begins with a background, explaining what that study is based on. In grant applications, it is necessary to explain the expected outcomes and impact our research projects will have. In these contexts, however, we are used to thinking within our fields of research: how the study links to other studies in our own field.
More and more often, though, we are asked to place our humble efforts into a wider context. Societal impact is officially one of three missions of our universities, and thus we are often asked, what benefits to the society at large might our research project have. What to do when someone asks you the dreaded question: "That's interesting, but what is your research for?"
One could react to the question as academia often reacts to any inquiries by outsiders: interpret the mere existence of such uninformed question as a sign of decline of our civilization, and as lack of understanding how basic, blue skies research works. In these dire economical times, this question might even sound to us like it is coming from a horde of Daleks from Doctor Who, insisting that you explain! EXPLAIN!! what you are doing with their precious tax euros. In contrast, I'd argue that we should seize the opportunity and try to give answering the question a solid go. Let's be grateful that the underlying assumption seems to be that our research indeed does have some wider relevance!
In my experience, "successful" scholars seem to be able to answer this question pretty well (causation, if it exists here, might of course flow in either direction). There is a similarity to how students think when choosing their thesis or assignment topics. For rhetorical effect, let's say there are two kinds of students: those who are extremely pragmatic, and start their thinking process from constraints and resources (how many ECTS credits do I get, am I busy with other stuff, what do I already know a lot about), and those, who are driven by curiosity to find an answer to a question they have been thinking about, sometimes since deciding to apply to the university. These questions, along the lines of "how music influences us", are of course much too big and unwieldy to be thesis topics, but for a teacher, it is much more motivating to help a "driven" student to narrow down their question to something that is feasible than to try to encourage nihilistic pragmatists to be more ambitious and take at least some risks with their projects.
In the end, both of our student stereotypes might end up doing projects that look relatively similar, but for one of them, the project represents another ticked box on the path to graduation, while for the other, it represents a small step towards answering their Favourite Question. One of the projects had utility, the other served a purpose.
Similarly in our own research, it is easy to be pragmatic and choose research questions that we can answer using the tools we already have, or simply end up running yet another incremental iteration of the experiment we managed to get funded last time. We might be taking steps but are they leading us anywhere? What is our research for, again?
Let's make a deal. Let's agree to never use the "science for it's own sake" card. Instead of explaining that we are doing basic research that has no applications as such, let's conjure a vision of a better future, where our efforts have lead to applications, be they new kinds of drugs, intelligent traffic, efficient administration or honest politicians. Dream big! Or, instead of saying that the purpose of our research in e.g. humanities is not to generate applications, but to increase our understanding of ourselves, let's spin this into a vision: what would our society look like if we had a better understanding of ourselves? Dream big!
Thinking along these lines is not only a service to those who are interested enough in our research to be asking questions about it (and/ or eventually paying for it), it might help ourselves to escape the gravity of endless details and minutiae that dominate the profession of doing research, and allows us to dream. As big as we like.