Sat. Feb 4th, 2023

Can we afford basic scientific research in an era of intense globalized economic competition and massive government debt? Lately, the answer seems to be “not really”. Companies that once supported R&D have cut back drastically, and the US government has not kept pace with inflation when it comes to funding most research. Over the past 50 years, US spending on research has risen from more than 2 percent of GDP to 0.8 percent. And there’s a lot of pressure to ensure that the research that continues to be funded has practical applications, from the National Institute of Health’s translational research programs to Lamar Smith’s effort to ensure that the National Science Foundation only funds research that promotes “national health, prosperity or well-being.”

That atmosphere led Robbert Dijkgraaf of the Institute for Advanced Study to write a defense of fundamental research. When the resulting text was released, the public was reeling over whether there was such a thing as “alternative facts.” Since then, the Trump administration has proposed a budget that would radically cut funding for nearly every area of ​​scientific research. You cannot say that Dijkgraaf’s decision did not come on time.

Dijkgraaf’s argument takes the form of a booklet, The usefulness of useless knowledge. It contains two essays, one by Dijkgraaf himself titled The world of tomorrow and the original Usefulness of useless knowledge written in 1939 by Abraham Flexner, co-founder of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Both offer defenses of what they loosely refer to as “useless knowledge,” or scientific endeavours, with no immediate application.

A blast from the past

Flexner wrote at a time when dictatorial governments had taken over many European universities, expelled the Jews from the faculty, and were determining on ideological grounds and personal taste which subjects deserved education. He had a background as an education reformer, and when a wealthy family approached him about what to do with their estate, the product was the IAS. Not only was the IAS free of ideological issues, it was also free of all the distractions – students, administration, writing grants – that normally prevent academics from reflecting on their own work.

For Flexner, the essay is largely a defense of the IAS’s approach. He seems firmly in the school of thought that believes progress is driven by Great Men (technically they are probably Great Spirits, but all of his examples are male). While acknowledging that science builds on much incremental work, he sees it as no different than art or poetry, driven by individual creativity. And he wants those individuals to be left alone to think about whatever matters to them.

For Flexner, being left alone means not being plagued by thoughts of usefulness. “I advocate the abolition of the word ‘use’ and the liberation of the human mind,” he writes.

With that attitude, it should come as no surprise that Flexner doesn’t spend much time arguing that useless knowledge pays off. But he does give some examples. He argues that Marconi, the inventor of radio communication, was inevitable after Maxwell worked out the fundamental principles of electromagnetism. But Flexner’s essay is not so much a defense of useless knowledge as a defense of the IAS’s specific approach to producing it.

Utility 2.0

The war that began almost immediately after Flexner’s publication Useless knowledge ended when it happened because a bunch of IAS faculty along with academics from all over the country turned their theoretical knowledge into an atomic bomb. Robbert Dijkgraaf has benefited from this and countless examples since then: 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 its case for him.

But as mentioned above, the world is not listening to history right now, so Dijkgraaf also discusses how the pursuit of useless knowledge has added benefits beyond being the basis 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 can 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 to apply them.

Dijkgraaf also praises the openness of academic activities, because the knowledge generated is usually published in academic journals and is not hindered by patents. Anyone, anywhere in the world, could use some of that knowledge and turn it into something useful.

The problem with this part of Dijkgraaf’s argument is that it is not an argument for funding science here. After all, can’t we just piggyback on the other countries that fund fundamental science? Once the knowledge is available, we can figure out how to apply it, regardless of the source.

Dijkgraaf responds to that objection, but he does not drive the point home. His final argument for actionable 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 is important: people have a life outside the lab and often prefer to stay where they already live when they graduate. A concentration of companies and universities often means that both halves of a couple can find a job together.

If history has answered the question of why anyone should fund basic research, this is the answer that tells us that the ‘someone’ here and now should be ‘us’.

Is this book helpful?

The usefulness of useless knowledge is a short read and interesting in several respects. Flexner’s essay is in some ways a time capsule, a mixture of familiarity and anachronism. Dijkgraaf’s update emphasizes that the concerns have not really changed, but the arguments that could convincingly address those concerns have. Even if you disagree with the individual arguments, Usefulness is an easy way to force yourself to think about the subject and perhaps sharpen your own arguments.

Will The usefulness of useless knowledge anyone change their mind? More importantly, will it change the minds of anyone who could fund basic research? Dijkgraaf seems to acknowledge that this will probably not be the case. One of his final arguments is that the people who can best advocate for basic research are all the scientists who do it.

The usefulness of useless knowledge is available from Princeton University Press.

By akfire1

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