In an era of intense, globalized economic competition and massive government debt, can we afford fundamental scientific research? Lately, the answer seems to be “not really.” Companies that once supported R&D have cut back dramatically, and the US government hasn’t kept pace with inflation when it comes to funding most research. In the last 50 years, the US’ spending on research has gone from over two percent of the GDP to 0.8 percent. And there’s intense pressure to make sure the research that’s still funded has practical applications, from the National Institute of Health’s translational research programs to Lamar Smith’s attempt to ensure that National Science Foundation only funds research that boosts “national health, prosperity, or welfare.”
That’s the atmosphere that led Robbert Dijkgraaf of the Institute for Advanced Study to write a defense of fundamental research. As the resulting text was being released, the public was reeling over the question of whether there were such things as “alternative facts.” Since then, the Trump administration proposed a budget that would radically cut funding for almost every area of scientific research. You can’t say Dijkgraaf’s decision wasn’t timely.
Dijkgraaf’s argument takes the form of a small book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. In it are two essays, one from Dijkgraaf himself titled The World of Tomorrow and the original Usefulness of Useless Knowledge penned in 1939 by Abraham Flexner, who helped found the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Both offer defenses of what they loosely call “useless knowledge,” or scientific effort without immediate application.
A blast from the past
Flexner was writing at a time when dictatorial governments had taken over many of Europe’s universities, purged the Jews from the faculty, and were determining which topics merited instruction based on ideological grounds and personal taste. He had a background as an education reformer and, when a wealthy family approached him about what to do with its legacy, the product was the IAS. Not only was the IAS free of ideological issues, it was free of all the distractions—students, administration, writing grants—that normally keep academics from being able to think about their own work.
For Flexner, the essay is largely a defense of the IAS’ approach. He seems to firmly belong to the school of thought that believes progress is driven by Great Men (it’s probably technically Great Minds, but all his examples are male). While he recognizes that science builds on lots of incremental work, he views it as no different from art or poetry, driven by individual creativity. And he wants those individuals left alone to think about whatever it is they care about.
Being left alone, for Flexner, includes not being plagued by thoughts of utility. “I am pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use’ and the freeing of the human spirit,” he writes.
With that attitude, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Flexner doesn’t spend much time arguing that useless knowledge pays off. But he does provide a few examples. He argues that Marconi, who invented radio communications, was inevitable after Maxwell had worked out the fundamental principles of electromagnetics. But Flexner’s essay is less a defense of useless knowledge than a defense of the IAS’ particular approach to producing it.
The war that started almost immediately after Flexner published Useless Knowledge ended when it did because a bunch of IAS faculty joined with academics from across the country to turn their theoretical understanding into an atomic bomb. Robbert Dijkgraaf has the benefit of that and countless examples since: in his essay, he cites the development of the electronics industry from quantum mechanics, the use of relativity to manage our GPS system, and more. History has made his case for him.
But, as noted above, the world isn’t listening to history at the moment, so Dijkgraaf also discusses how the pursuit of useless knowledge has additional benefits beyond being the foundation of new technology. He notes that the tools and techniques developed to pursue fundamental knowledge can also have practical applications. The things we use to look at cells could help us look at microprocessors. Another point is that the pursuit of useless knowledge trains people who know how to use these tools and techniques to come up with creative ways of applying them.
Dijkgraaf also praises the openness of academic pursuits, as the knowledge generated typically ends up published in academic journals and unencumbered by patents. Anyone, anywhere in the world could potentially latch on to some of that knowledge and turn it into something useful.
The problem with this part of Dijkgraaf’s argument is that it’s not an argument for funding science here. After all, can’t we just free-ride on the other countries that do fund fundamental science? Once the knowledge is available, we can figure out how to apply it, regardless of its source.
Dijkgraaf answers that objection, but he doesn’t drive the point home. His final argument for useful knowledge is that startups and new companies tend to pop up around universities. Silicon Valley is fed computer scientists by Stanford and Berkeley; biotech companies spring up near the concentration of universities and hospitals in Boston. Proximity matters—people have lives outside the lab, and they often prefer to stay where they already are living when they graduate. A concentration of companies and universities often means that both halves of a couple can find jobs together.
If history has answered the question of why someone needs to fund basic research, this is the answer that tells us that the “someone” should be “us,” here, now.
Is this book useful?
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge is a short read and interesting in a variety of ways. Flexner’s essay is a time capsule in some ways, a mixture of familiar and anachronism. Dijkgraaf’s update emphasizes that the concerns haven’t really changed, but the arguments that might address those concerns in a compelling way have. Even if you don’t agree with the individual arguments, Usefulness is an easy way to force yourself to think about the topic and maybe sharpen your own arguments.
Will The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge change anyone’s mind? More significantly, will it change the minds of anyone who could fund fundamental research? Dijkgraaf seems to acknowledge that it probably won’t. One of his final arguments is that the people who are best able to make the case for fundamental research are all the scientists doing it.
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge is available from Princeton University Press.