Robbert Dijkgraaf on The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

FlexnerA forty-year tightening of funding for scientific research has meant that resources are increasingly directed toward applied or practical outcomes, with the intent of creating products of immediate value. In such a scenario, it makes sense to focus on the most identifiable and urgent problems, right? Actually, it doesn’t. In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director. Read on for Dijkgraaf’s take on the importance of curiosity-driven research, how we can cultivate it, and why Flexner’s essay is more relevant than ever.

The title of the book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, is somewhat enigmatic—what does it mean?

RD: Abraham Flexner, an educational reformer and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote an essay with this title for Harper’s magazine in 1939. He believed that there was an indispensable connection between intellectual and spiritual life—“useless forms of activity”—and undreamed-of utility.

Cited as a philanthropic hero by Warren Buffett, Flexner was responsible for bringing Albert Einstein to America to join the Institute’s inaugural Faculty, just when Hitler came to power in 1933.

A true visionary, Flexner was acutely aware that our current conception of what is useful might suffice for the short term but would inevitably become too narrow over time. He believed that the best way to advance understanding and knowledge is by enabling leading scientists and scholars to follow their natural curiosity, intuition, and inquiry, without concern for utility but rather with the purpose of discovering answers to the most fascinating questions of their time.

Flexner’s 1939 article is reprinted in the book along with a companion essay that you have written. What did you realize in revisiting Flexner’s ideas?

RD: One large realization is that while the world has changed dramatically in terms of technological progress since Flexner’s time, human beings still wrestle with the benefits and risks of freedom, with power and productivity versus imagination and creativity, and this dichotomy continues to limit our evolution and sometimes leads to abhorrent behavior as we saw during Flexner’s era and which continues to haunt ours today.

A significant difference is that in the twenty-first century, we are increasingly creating a one-dimensional world determined by external metrics. Why? Our world is becoming ever larger and more complex. In order to provide some clarity, we try to quantify that world with share prices and rankings. In the process, we have exiled our intuition and have lost contact with our environment.

We need to return to timeless values like searching for the truth, while being honest about the things we don’t understand. There is also a great need for passion. I wake up every morning with the thought: I want to do something that I feel good about. As a society, we have largely lost that feeling. We need to reconsider: what kind of world do we want exactly? And what new systems do we need to do good things?

Why is curiosity-driven basic research important today and how can we cultivate it?

RD: The progress of our modern age, and of the world of tomorrow, depends not only on technical expertise, but also on unobstructed curiosity and the benefits of traveling far upstream, against the current of practical considerations. Much of the knowledge developed by basic research is made publicly accessible and so benefits society as a whole, spreading widely beyond the narrow circle of individuals who, over years and decades, introduce and develop the ideas. Fundamental advances in knowledge cannot be owned or restricted by people, institutions, or nations, certainly not in the current age of the Internet. They are truly public goods.

But driven by an ever-deepening lack of funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, global political turmoil, and ever-shortening time cycles, research criteria are becoming dangerously skewed towards conservative short-term goals that may address more immediate problems, but miss out on the huge advances that human imagination can bring in the long term.

The “metrics” used to assess the quality and impact of research proposals—even in the absence of a broadly accepted framework for such measurements—systematically undercut pathbreaking scholarship in favor of more predictable goal-directed research. It can easily take many years, even decades, or sometimes, a century, as in the case of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity that were only detected last year, for the societal value of an idea to come to light.

In order to enable and encourage the full cycle of scientific innovation, we need to develop a solid portfolio of research in much the same way as we approach well-managed financial resources. Such a balanced portfolio would contain predictable and stable short-term investments, as well as long-term bets that are intrinsically more risky but can potentially earn off-the-scale rewards. The path from exploratory basic research to practical applications is not one-directional and linear, but rather complex and cyclic, with resultant technologies enabling even more fundamental discoveries. Flexner and I give many examples of this in our book, from the development of electromagnetic waves that carry wireless signals to quantum mechanics and computer chips.

How do curiosity and imagination enable progress?

RD: An attitude aimed at learning and investigating, wherein imagination and creativity play an important role, is essential not only in scientific institutions but in every organization. Companies and institutions themselves need to develop the inquisitive and explorative approach they would like to see in their employees. Organizations are often trapped in the framework of their own thinking. Out-of-the-box thinking is very hard, because one doesn’t know where the box is. At the basis of progress lies a feeling of optimism: problems can be solved. Organizations need to cultivate the capacity to visualize the future and define their position in it.

What conditions are necessary for the spark of a new idea or theory?

RD: If we want more imagination, creativity, and curiosity, we need to accept that people occasionally run in the wrong direction. As a business, institution, or society, we need to allow once again for failure. Encourage workers to spend a certain percentage of their time on the process of exploration. A brilliant idea never appears out of the blue, but is generated simply by allowing people to try out things. Nine times out of ten, nothing results, but something may emerge suddenly and unexpectedly. That free space and those margins of error are increasingly under pressure in our head, our role, our organization, and our society. I am worried about the loss of that exploratory force.

What don’t we know, and how does uncertainty drive advancement?

RD: How did the universe begin and how does it end? What is the origin of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the cosmos? What in our brain makes us conscious and human? In addition to these fundamental questions and many others, we are struggling with major issues about time and space, about matter and energy. What are our ideas on this and what questions are we trying to answer? In science, a long process precedes any outcome. In general, the media only has time and space to pay attention to outcomes. But for scientists it’s precisely the process that counts, walking together down that path. It’s the questions that engage us, not the answers.

Abraham Flexner (1866–1959) was the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the world’s leading institutions for basic research in the sciences and humanities. Robbert Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist who specializes in string theory, is director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. A distinguished public policy adviser and passionate advocate for science and the arts, he is also the cochair of the InterAcademy Council, a global alliance of science academies, and former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. They are the authors of The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.