The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

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Vincent Poitout

September 8, 2017

In the early 1930s, Abraham Flexner founded the Institute for Advanced Knowledge at Princeton University in the U.S. The mission of this new institution was to allow researchers to give free rein to their scientific creativity, with no restrictions and no goal other than sheer discovery. One of Flexner’s first recruits was Albert Einstein, with many others following, notably those fleeing pre-World War II Europe and the rise of the Reich. This event is considered to be the beginning of American scientific supremacy.  

The essay in which Flexner, in 1939, defended his theory and the virtues of purposeless discovery has just been re-edited1, accompanied by a text by the Institute’s current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf. Using many examples, Dijkgraaf demonstrates the currency and validity of Flexner’s theory, citing key applications, from electricity to the GPS to the World Wide Web, which resulted from discoveries that were initially useless. Similar examples in the field of medicine are monoclonal antibodies, whose inventors would never have imagined their therapeutic application over 40 years later, or restriction enzymes, discovered by researchers trying to understand why certain bacteria were resistant to viral infection, and which are central to all of genomics and its many applications.

These reminders by Flexner and Dijkgraaf of the importance of basic research and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge rather than for a predefined application are particularly useful in a context in which there is a strong tendency to favour applied research. In Canada, the report submitted to the Minister of Science by the committee chaired by David Naylor this past April clearly recommends that the federal government invest massively in independent research. With my fellow scientific directors of FRQS research centres, we came out in strong support of the recommendations of the Naylor report in texts in Le Devoir and The Gazette, in French and English respectively. Let’s hope that the federal government hears these messages and acts quickly to strengthen basic research in Canada, which, far from being useless, is the source of all innovation. 

Vincent Poitout
Director of the CRCHUM and Director of Research at the CHUM

 


 1 Abraham Flexner, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”, Princeton University Press, 2017, 99 pp.