The Many Uses Of ‘Useless’ Research

17:03 minutes

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 that we can do both, even if financial support is harder to get?

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.”

[Walter Isaacson talks about bringing his book about Einstein to television.]

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 drives GPS. 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 that support for basic science has taken from Flexner’s time to now, and talks to Ira about how researchers can be better advocates for the importance of their “useless” work.

Segment Guests

Robbert Dijkgraaf

Robbert Dijkgraaf is a mathematical physicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Back in 1939, Abraham Flexner wrote an essay with a whimsical title, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”. And it was though a very serious defense of research driven by curiosity, rather than practical concerns. Of advancing knowledge for the sake of it, rather than focusing first on how it will benefit us. “We cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past,” Flexner wrote. Flexner also happened to be the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, the mathematical institution that was Albert Einstein’s research home when he came to the US. And today, the current director of the IAS wants to make the same assertation that basic research pays dividends scientists can’t calculate when they first set out to explore the big exciting questions of the universe.

But if so, how do we prioritize finite funding? And how do we argue that the value of say a Higgs boson to the public or to politicians who hold the purse strings? How do we make those arguments? Well hopefully, Robbert Dijkgraaf will help us. He’s here. He’s director of The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a mathematical physicist. And he’s written a companion essay for the republication of Flexner’s essay. It’s out from Princeton University Press this year. He joins us from London. Welcome to the Science Friday. Thanks for staying up late with us.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Glad to be with you Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us first about the scene. What was the environment that inspired Flexner’s essay? Why did the feel basic research needed justification?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Well then I have to bring you back to the 1920s and 1930s, when actually education and research in the United States coming just out of the depression was really very, very practical focused. It didn’t have the research culture that, for instance, was at that time present in Europe. And Flexner was really critical of these universities. For instance, he’s criticizing Columbia University that has courses in beekeeping and poultry raising. And he strongly feels looking back into history that the really momentous transformations in society mentions, for instance. Radio come from deep questions about reality and studying the laws of physics.

IRA FLATOW: And so he actually created a place, The Institute for Advanced Study. He got some funding. Was interesting what he got from the, was it the Bamberger family?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Yeah, the Bamberger family.

IRA FLATOW: The department store people in Jersey?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Exactly. They sold a department store three weeks before the Wall Street crash, and so they were one of the few who cash in hands. And they came to Flexner, and he convinced them to create such an Institute and then they said well Flexner, you have always been criticizing others. Now you should give others the opportunity to criticize you and let you lead the institution.

IRA FLATOW: And so he started collecting some of the biggest names in big thinkers of the time. Einstein, other people.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Well, he was extremely lucky so to say that world history intervened, and that certainly the greatest minds of Europe were chased away. They had to flee and came as refugees and immigrants to the United States. And he was very, very active. And so his Institute became kind of an Ellis Island for scholars at risk. And so, essentially the creme de la creme of German mathematics, well certainly in Princeton, New Jersey.

IRA FLATOW: Who else came over?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Well, John von Neumann who essentially built the first modern computer. Kurt Godel the logician would often said this, after Aristoteles, perhaps the best logician of the last 2,000 years. But also like art historians as Erwin Panofsky, and later an economist as Albert Hirschman. So there was a whole cast, and Flexner then writes in ’39, he says, If you act with courage now, then historians in 50 years will look back and will say that this is the moment where the center of gravity of research crossed the Atlantic.

IRA FLATOW: Our number 844 724 8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Taking time to think about big things, and talk about the history of The Institute for Advanced Study, and also talking about this essay he wrote. It’s interesting, he must have thought a while about naming, what he was going to name it, before he called it.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Yeah, it’s whimsical, of course. And useful knowledge was kind of a concept. That really appeared in the tide of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century, because for some aspect that knowledge could be useful was a new thing, but he felt in some sense that we were overshooting. And that he should bring back the kind of uselessness, and not in a frivolous way, but more in a deep curiosity driven way.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think we are at that point now in a certain way?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Well in writing the introduction, I felt kind of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s so easy to validate his point, because the 78 years in between we have seen tremendous applications of fundamental basic research. Think about everything that happened in the life sciences with the whole genetic and molecular basis. Think about computers. Think about nano materials. So it’s easy but then in some sense, we are perhaps back again in the time of Flexner, that we see that there’s a lot of emphasis put on practical use. And we just know that to really make breakthrough solutions and actually find the most useful applications it’s usually as a byproduct of curiosity driven basic research. So I felt a little bit despondent that I have to kind of make the argument again as Flexner was doing in the late ’30s.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think it’s penetrating at all this time? I mean, obviously it had some effect back then.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Well, I think actually these days it’s important that we have these discussions. If you– for science, but also for society. If you are a politician you ask, are your children better off than you are? And I would say as a scientist, if I look so to say at my children, so young scientists who are now doing their PhD, they’re in a much worse situation than my generation say 20, 30 years ago. The percentages of, you know, getting grants are less than half what they were in my time. And also I think they have to justify their research in a much more detailed way, being evaluated and being measured. And so it’s kind of stifling. And I think this is a bad thing, but also I think for society it’s very important that we protect what I would say is really the engine that drives progress, which is the ability of human beings somehow to see things that aren’t there yet. Visualize new applications. Dream big and ask difficult questions. And somehow, there are individuals that are able to go out, venture far, and solve these questions.

IRA FLATOW: You mentioned you could have and it was great quote about, there was a turning point where the US now sort of became the center of gravity for science. It had moved from Europe over to the US. I’m trying to remember a few weeks ago after the French elections, the French president basically addressed American scientists, didn’t he?


IRA FLATOW: He said, look if you’re not going to be funded in America, come on over. What did you think of that?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Flexner actually makes the point also in this essay. He says, you know, historians will tell you that these centers of gravity have migrated over the world. They never fixed. And I think in particular, that the United States has been kind of lucky and or very wise in two things. One is a very generous funding for science, particular after World War II, where the United States essentially created the modern research university, the things like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health. Very generous basic funding. And second, being open to other ideas. People from other cultures, and other countries. And I feel kind of tinkering with these two elements is almost doing kind of open heart surgery on the American economy, and American society. And definitely there are other countries who are looking kind of envious at the magnetism that America still has. It attracts, I would say, a large share of the top talent of scientists and scholars in the world. But indeed, this could move. And I think it’s a very precious thing that we should cherish.

IRA FLATOW: Because we’re seeing with the rise of third world countries like China, and India. And the amount of money they’re investing in their education systems and their belief in science.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Exactly. They try to copy the American model. They have seen this working. They also try to implement the science in the development of their countries. And so we have to be in some sense that there is a race between the various areas in the world is of course a good thing, because you need competition. It will actually bring out the very best. But the United States is still in a very privileged position. If you think of the leading institutions, the top 50 of universities still a fair share of that is based in America.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if scientists are feeling like they need to move, and some of them don’t want to move, what can they do in this country?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Well it’s interesting that in Flexner’s time too, there was also discussion about Flexner, for instance, felt that scientists should kind of focus on the science. Well, Einstein for instance, had a very different view. Even when he was on the boat coming to America, Flexner sends him a cable. Keep a low profile. Don’t say anything. And when President Roosevelt invites Einstein to the White House, Flexner writes back, well, he’s an important scientist. He has difficult calculations to do. Cannot be bothered. Einstein’s incredibly upset, because he felt the world was interacting with him, he should also interact with the world. So I think there’s also this question for scientists. Should you speak out? Should you kind of advocate? Should you kind of educate not only your fellow colleagues, but perhaps the public at large too.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because Einstein certainly was no shrinking violet when it came to speaking out.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: No, and it’s remarkable being in Princeton and learning so much about him that I would say he shaped his equations with the same care as he shaped his sayings. In fact, he would even, if you had these wonderful quotes of Einstein when he had found one, he would type it and secretary would cut it out and put it in a box. So I like to think that 50 years before Twitter, Einstein was already tweeting.

IRA FLATOW: I’m trying to think of more– We had Rachel Carson talking about Silent Spring. We had Carl Sagan. We had these leaders. I mean there aren’t great vocals, you know, political science leaders in the states anymore. Like we’re back to [INAUDIBLE].

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: I think it’s very important that we grow this up. And the one thing I’m incredibly encouraged with, if you look at particularly the younger generation, their kind of very naturally multitasking. They love to do research, but they also like to talk about it, share it, find new ways of communicating. And I think if you look back over the last 50 years, if you would say what are the two things that really impressed, I would say it’s the rise of science, the incredible technology that has brought, but also the incredible increase in communication. There’s so many ways to communicate. But communicating science is it’s not like growing as fast as you would think. So, I think we have to find new ways. And here I actually might differ with Flexner, who was in some sense thought of science as kind of, he wanted to create a paradise, while others said, well paradise is wonderful. As one of the trustees Felix Frankfurter said, paradise was fine for one person, but for more, not. And people like Einstein, but others also felt, that no you should engage with the world.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Robbert Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the famous place. We’re talking about republication of “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”, Abraham Flexner’s wonderful essay back in 1939. And let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Katie in San Antonio. Hi Katie.

AUDIENCE: Good afternoon, Ira. Great show today. I’m just concerned about the fact that with the present administration that we have, that it’s denigrating science and alternative facts. That the children of today are aware that science truly matters, and that science is something should be sought out after and proclaimed, rather than kept under a bushel, you know? And let the light of science continue. And I’m interested in getting a copy of that publication that you’re speaking about today. Flexner’s–

IRA FLATOW: Well, Dr. Dijkgraaf, where can I get it?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: You can buy it with online. It’s in bookstores. It’s published by Princeton University Press. It’s a relatively small book on the big idea. And I totally agree with the fact that we should not only communicate the products of science and the wonderful things it has brought, but also the values. Careful analysis, doing experimentations. Some certain things work. Others do not. Intense discussion, always aware of the facts, but also about uncertainties.

And recently somebody asked me, if you could wave a magic wand and there was one thing that everybody in the world would understand about science, what would you pick? And my answer was the scientific method. The fact that we have a systematic way to analyze reality, because reality has this kind of perky behavior of being right in the end. And so it’s very difficult to find reality. And we just devised over the last few hundred years, this very systematic way of understanding it. And I think that’s something that we should share. It’s not only something for the few experts. It should be values that are important for society.

And by the way, I also feel society and just anybody should be interested what science is doing, because are such tremendous transformations ahead, with lots of things happening. What is artificial intelligence? The creation of artificial life. There are momentous decisions to be made. I think it’s important that citizens are aware of what’s happening and are getting involved.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: So you’re more hopeful than pessimistic?

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: Well, in the end, I think it’s one of the most wonderful things that we have seen, the rise of science. I’d like to point out that in the last 200, 250 years, human life expectancy has tripled. Just imagine what an incredible amount of misery has being kind of avoided. But of course there are ups and downs, so the long term trend will be good, but I think it’s important that we realize that this is a critical stage. And I think some people feel that science is under siege, but also see kind of the almost an immune response. I think many scientists and scientific organizations feel this is the moment to speak out. This is moment to engage. And actually shine a light on all the wonderful successes of science that we are actually using every day. You can point to anything in the room and you can ask, where did that come from? From a light bulb, to a radio and it’s always traced back to some very curious individual that probably was just tinkering around.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Have a great weekend.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: It’s a great pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.


IRA FLATOW: Robbert Dijkgraaf is mathematical physicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. And we were talking about the Abraham Flexner essay, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” published way back in 1939, and it’s still around and still relevant today. And you can get it at probably somewhere on online.

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