Robbert Dijkgraaf discusses the relevance of Abraham Flexner’s 1939 essay, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” to the way we fund scientific research today.
Vocabulary scientific research, useless knowledge, science communication, innovation
What is the best use of scientists’ time, energy, and grant funding? Should researchers investigate the fundamental nature of the universe…or cure cancer? Or is there a way to ensure we can do both, even if financial support is harder to get?
Abraham Flexner, taken in 1895. Rockefeller Foundation Archive via Wikimedia Commons
In 1939, Institute for Advanced Study founding director Abraham Flexner — the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to America — penned an essay called “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” He argued that, in an age when science was invoked to solve problems of global significance, fundamental scientific research was also vital, even if its purpose was less defined. “Unless it is made a better world, a fairer world, millions will continue to go to their graves silent, saddened, and embittered,” Flexner wrote. But, he continued, “we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past.”
Indeed, since Flexner’s time, we’ve seen long-awaited fruits of basic research. As just one example, Einstein’s insights into relativity led to one very tangible benefit: the atomic clock technology that made GPS possible. And now Robbert Dijkgraaf, the current director at the Institute for Advanced Study, is reissuing Flexner’s call. He recently wrote that it’s time to throw new energy into defending basic research that explores big questions about the world we live in. For example, he says, countless medical advances that have improved lifespans worldwide would never have happened if not for scientists who were curious about the shape of the gene.
Dijkgraaf traces the path basic research support has taken since Flexner’s time and talks to Ira about how researchers can be better advocates for the importance of their “useless” work.
- What is useless knowledge? Why do Flexner and Dijkgraaf consider “useless knowledge” to be important to innovation?
- Why is the current granting process stifling younger scientists? What do you think might improve that system? How can we create both accountability and space to pursue “useless knowledge?”
- Describe the position of Flexner and Einstein on science communication. Who do you agree with? Why do you agree with them?
- Do you think that funding for scientific research should be allocated by panels of politicians, panels of scientists, or a combination? Be sure to provide reasoning for your choice.
- Engage students in a discussion about the value of useless knowledge by looking further into Flexner’s essay with this review and series of excerpts by Maria Popova. You can also look at this article examining Flexner’s essay and this article that analyzes Dijkgraaf’s companion essay.
- Check out this Spoonful on the Ig Nobel awards, which are given each year to so seriously silly studies.
Next Generation Science Standards: ETS2.B: Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World, SEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems, SEP8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information