Research in any RTS is important. Games that make research worth doing are generally very fun and diverse, whereas a weak research system can result in the same tired old level 1 tank rush every time (cue the entire command and conquer series).
The research system was originally going to take exponentially longer each level, but that got very bad very fast. So, it does grow linearly. In order to do research you need open slots. You start with 1 slot from your starbase, but you need to build research centers to add slots. Each slot can run an independent research job.
Finally, the research is only applied to newly fitted ships. This way the missiles of your frigate already in combat do not magically gain more range, you have to fit the module again to get the upgraded version.
And, of course, you can do as much research on any research type you want, it just takes longer and longer and longer....
Enough Crap, Show me the Screens!
Take a look at this. Notice the damage is 8.
This is before any research is done. So, I press R to open my research window. I decide that catalyzed warheads is my best bet to increase their damage. I start the research process on catalyzed warheads tier 1.
Now, I wait for it to complete. Then I go back to my frigate and refit the rocket pod and notice that it now has 9 damage instead of 8. SCIENCE!
Lovely! Now my missiles are more effective.
I have implemented researchability for every module type. This means I can add research types to affect any attribute on any module. Think of the EVE skill system except without a cap and in an RTS. This will allow a huge amount of specialization (or the strategy of researching everything and being great at nothing).
Please give me feedback! Send it at ModDB or directly to email@example.com with features and ideas! This was one of the last major hurdles programming this game. The final three are getting the AI to go on the offensive, loading/saving games (harder than it sounds with all these complex objects), and implementing planetary siege equipment.