The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Abraham Flexner, founder of the Institute for Advanced Study, has much to teach modern researchers—not only about seeking knowledge for its own sake, but also about effective fundraising and private philanthropy.

Deep into the Great Depression, and only weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, Harper’s Magazine published Abraham Flexner’s surprising homage to two increasingly unpopular ideas: intellectual freedom and useless knowledge. Universities in some parts of the world had become what he called “tools of . . . a special political, economic or racial creed,” while others were focusing on practical education such as engineering, technology, and the professions. Flexner set off in a completely different direction with the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where members would endure no faculty meetings, suffer no committees, supervise no students, and, ultimately, have, as he put it to one potential recruit, “no duties—only opportunities.”

World-renowned scholars, lured by those opportunities, and, for some, fleeing the dire consequences of intolerance, found a new academic home in its three loosely titled “schools” of mathematics, humanistic studies, and economics and politics. These academics included such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann, Erwin Panofsky, and a host of others.

All of these opportunities for intellectual inquiry free of goals, metrics, deliverables, and assessments were not designed simply to celebrate uselessness for its own sake. To the contrary, Flexner argued that curiosity-driven research, the “pursuit of . . . useless satisfactions,” will be “the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived.” Flexner was remarkably prescient. This unprecedented freedom for scholars such as Einstein and von Neumann to pursue apparently useless knowledge ultimately “enabled the nuclear and digital revolutions,” as current Institute director Robbert Dijkgraaf points out in his accompanying “World of Tomorrow” essay in Princeton University Press’s republication of Flexner’s lively, powerful, and surprisingly timely essay: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.

Flexner’s Lasting Impact Upon Scientific Study

Flexner’s Institute for Advanced Study is one of the greatest second acts in educational history. His first major triumph, of which we continue to be the beneficiaries, was the upgrading of medical education through tougher admissions and graduation standards, as well as a dedication to evidence-based teaching and research. Much of today’s medical school curriculum had its origins in the Carnegie Foundation’s 1910 “Flexner Report.” Taking Johns Hopkins (where he had studied classics) as a model, Flexner convinced some of the wealthiest men in America to donate massive sums for the establishment of modern, research-oriented medical schools at Chicago, Columbia, Rochester, and elsewhere. His efforts to transform the training of the nation’s physicians, as much as his founding of the Institute for Advanced Study, inspired the New York Times to say in a 1959 page-one obituary, “No other American of his time has contributed more to the welfare of this country and of humanity in general.”

Flexner succeeded in setting medical education on a modern scientific course through a powerful blend of knowledge, passion, and, perhaps most importantly, a knack for talking extremely wealthy people into following his lead. He next turned his potent skills toward changing the future itself. Surprisingly, in light of all of his efforts to enhance medical training, Flexner launched the Institute for Advanced Study by diverting a large gift that a wealthy family had planned to use to establish a new medical school. He convinced them instead to found a new sort of institution in Princeton, “a paradise for scholars who . . . have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.”

Flexner’s pitch rested on a brief history of the major advances in science and medicine through the ages. He traced one well-known practical discovery after another back to its foundations in curiosity-driven, fundamental research that seemed, at the time, to have no possible connection with any sort of useful application. When one potential donor held up Marconi’s invention of the radio as the most useful event in modern science, Flexner reminded him that this was an instance of completely “useless” research in electromagnetic waves by Maxwell and Hertz half a century before being “seized upon by a clever technician.” Giants of Western science, from Galileo to Bacon, Newton, and many others, provided yet further evidence for Flexner’s basic insight: “throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which . . . ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”

The Contemporary Importance of the Humanities

If Flexner wanted equally potent evidence of the usefulness of the humanities, he could have pointed to his own triumphant summary of the progress of science, a historical exercise that netted millions for the Institute. Yet, although the Institute included schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences as well as mathematics, his enthusiastic conclusions about utility are all science-driven. When he turned to non-scientific fields, Flexner emphasized instead “the overwhelming importance of spiritual and intellectual freedom.” Poetry, music, art and other “expression[s] of the untrammeled human spirit” need no more justification than the “mere fact [that] they bring satisfaction to an individual soul bent upon its own purification and elevation.”

Flexner could also have invoked some equally essential pragmatic contributions of the humanities to modern life. The American Framers, for example, created our constitutional government on the foundations of classical educations that had taught them lessons about human nature and politics from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Enlightenment. Since then, presidents, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices have all shaped and reshaped that government based on their understanding of the fields Flexner called humanistic studies, economics, and politics.

Just how closely related all of these diverse fields are can be seen in the driverless cars of the future, which will be based on two discoveries Dijkgraaf traces directly to the Institute’s early members. These autonomous vehicles will be operated by computers enabled by von Neumann’s work, and steered by GPS systems that rely on Einstein’s theory of relativity. But those cars’ driving systems will not be fully programmable until we can solve one of the classic dilemmas of modern philosophy.

The issue arises when the car has to make a split-second, emergency choice between running down several people or crashing into a wall and killing the driver. This is a real life version of what philosophers often call the trolley problem, a scenario in which you are on a bridge over the tracks watching a trolley about to run over five people. You could save them by pushing the very fat man next to you off the bridge and onto the tracks in front of the trolley. For years, philosophers have asked us to consider whether we should push him or not.

Today’s version of the problem is a little more personal. We are no longer the one doing the pushing. We’re the fat guy, and the computer is in the driver’s seat. Clearly, knowing what to do with our technology is as critical as the original scientific insights that enabled it to exist. The humanities can be as useful, and indeed as essential, as the sciences.

How Should Scientific Research Be Funded?

Finally, this new volume also offers a valuable case study in how our institutional thinking about funding basic research has changed as the federal government has grown ever larger. Like Flexner, current Institute Director Dijkgraaf cites numerous instances of useless research leading to breakthroughs in virtually every aspect of our high-tech lives. He, too, decries a challenging economic climate: “Driven by an ever-deepening lack of funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, [and] global political turmoil . . . research criteria are becoming dangerously skewed toward . . . short-term goals.” To find a solution, the contemporary administrator turns in a very different direction from that taken by the entrepreneurial founder.

Flexner directed his inspirational fundraising pitches at the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Eastmans, Bambergers, and numerous other wealthy families, convincing them to contribute vast sums to medical education and to the Institute’s pursuit of useless knowledge. Dijkgraaf instead worries at length about a shrinking federal budget where “basic research is too blithely given short shrift.” In Flexner’s time, the federal budget had little room for non-defense research spending, and that is not where he looked for support. He went where the money was—the wealthiest families in America.

Flexner’s story was not just one of scientific progress, but also a history of how scientists and other scholars have cobbled together the funding they have needed, often from wealthy patrons of the arts and sciences. In the twentieth century, essentially for the first time, researchers became dependent on what seemed, for a while, to be a consistently growing federal research budget. Now, as the government sinks further in debt, and as other priorities clamor for attention, researchers need to figure out what to do when the government does not answer their calls. The answer is that they need to study Flexner’s enormously successful methods.

One of the best reasons to reissue The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge today is to remind us of how many path-breaking and life-changing discoveries have been made possible by philanthropic support. To help today’s researchers learn how to tell that story as well as Flexner did, Princeton University Press could perform an important service by adding his other Harper’s essay to the next edition. Titled “Adventures in Money-Raising,” it is both a chronicle of how he established some of America’s greatest medical schools and a first-class primer on how to ask people to part with large sums in the interest of worthwhile causes. Those of us who believe that basic research is such a cause need to emulate the entrepreneurial Flexner so that useless research will continue to change the world in unexpected ways.

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