Don't Underestimate The Usefulness Of 'Useless' Knowledge

Since World War II, scientific research in the United States has been sustained and driven largely by a vigorous System of public funding. This system has worked well in general and has brought the U.S. to its present position of scientific leadership. The majority of international prizes and awards consistently goes to scientists in the U.S., and by all accepted measures, U.S. science disproportionately produces important and innovative scientific papers. But American leadership is beset by a

Paul Griffiths
Aug 16, 1992

Since World War II, scientific research in the United States has been sustained and driven largely by a vigorous System of public funding. This system has worked well in general and has brought the U.S. to its present position of scientific leadership. The majority of international prizes and awards consistently goes to scientists in the U.S., and by all accepted measures, U.S. science disproportionately produces important and innovative scientific papers.

But American leadership is beset by a host of problems. The nation's universities, which generate the bulk of leading-edge research, are severely hampered by financial problems and divisive debates over priorities. A series of humiliating events-such as the claims about cold fusion, the Challenger disaster, and numerous incidents of fraud and poor judgment-have tarnished the reputation of science. At the same time that the nation has diminished confidence in the work of American science, federal and private grants have been increasingly used to serve political and social, rather than scientific, objectives.

These issues have alarmed scientific leaders. Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, speaking as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has asserted bluntly that "science is sick." Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, affirms more gently that "there is a great deal of stress in the very scientific community that is responsible for America's leadership."

Effects of this stress are evident in the graceless public debate between the government and the scientific community over funding priorities. Congress, by its political nature, usually seeks prompt and practical returns for the dollars it allocates to research. The scientific community protests that research is inherently unpredictable and that scientists themselves should have the major role in allocating research dollars.

The Nature Of Research

We as a nation can begin to resolve this debate by paying closer attention to the nature of research itself. Research is a living process, like an organism, that evolves- from a stage of germination through growth to maturity. The germ of a researcher's idea is very different from a fully grown theory, and we must adjust our expectations accordingly. For example, the expectation of prompt and practical results is wholly appropriate for mature research and development programs, in which, for example, the task is to put humans on the moon or develop a new computer chip. But such expectations are not suitable for more youthful basic research, and truly ruinous to the infancy of fundamental or speculative research.

As we come to understand the nature of pure research, we will also see that it is indispensable to the more familiar applied research that almost everybody understands as necessary for the development and well-being of the nation. Consider, for example, the need to understand air flow past an airplane wing in order to deal with the problem of turbulence. Underlying such a study is basic research-in this case, differential equations known as Navier-Stokes equations, which describe the flow of any type of fluid. These equations, in turn, depend on Sir Isaac Newton's greatest fundamental discovery, the calculus, which occurred centuries before the work of Navier and Stokes.

Abraham Flexner, one of the great educators in the first half of this century, described a memorable conversation with George Eastman that illustrates how easily we misunderstand fundamental research. He asked Eastman, whose Kodak company became a paragon of applied research, what scientist had made the most valuable contribution to modern life. Eastman named Guglielmo Marconi, who invented the wireless telegraph in 1895. Flexner described Eastman's amazement when informed that Marconi had little to do with the principle behind the telegraph; that the fundamental work on the transmission of electromagnetic waves was begun in 1865 by James Clerk Maxwell and confirmed by Heinrich Hertz in 1888.

"Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing," Flexner wrote, "but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician and which has created new means for communication, utility, and amusement by which men whose merits are relatively slight have obtained fame and earned millions."

The research history of the laser amplifies Flexner's point and illustrates the dramatic evolution of research. In the 1920s, experimental physicists found that electrons have a completely unexpected property they named "Spin." Soon thereafter, the mathematical physicist Paul Dirac, in a burst of fundamental creativity, came up with the now-famous equation that fully describes the motion of an electron, including its spin. This equation was a rich theoretical lode for subsequent basic research. From the firm platform of this basic work, scientists and engineers discovered how to apply Dirac's "useless" knowledge to devices using beams of electromagnetic energy. Further applied research and development then led to the invention of the laser, whose ever-expanding usefulness would surely astonish even Dirac.

We see then that fundamental ideas create new paradigms and new fields; they provide the concepts and frameworks for new basic research. Fundamental thinking has much in common with art, with play, with dreams; it is fragile and unformed. It cannot survive under pressures of time or expectation. Only when the imagination is allowed to soar freely can it obtain a truly original view of the world. To the degree that the imagination is restricted-ordered to fly at a certain altitude, land on a certain runway-its vision dims and narrows.

Historical Evolution

Because of ascendancy of the political process in funding decisions and the public lack of understanding of the pragmatic importance of pure research, allocations of research funds today are seldom made out of concern for the natural evolution of knowledge acquired through pure or basic research. Funding decisions are prompted as well by important but short-term concerns, such as the drive for economic return.

The predictability and accountability sought by government in its new emphasis on priority setting are understandable. A host of science related issues demand attention- economic competitiveness, health care, and the environment, to name a few-and it is not unreasonable of the public to expect results in return for tax dollars. In the face of this expectation, the government is unlikely to increase significantly its support for speculative research. Whatever the scientific community may want, Congress will continue to press for result-oriented scientific and engineering research.

But we neglect Flexner's teachings at our peril. Without understanding the history and workings of scientific research, we cannot plan wisely for its future.

Early in U.S. history, Americans showed little interest in research for its own sake. Those who cared for basic research studied in Europe, particularly in one of the great German research institutes inspired by Alexander von Humboldt. Not until 1875, with the founding of Johns Hopkins University, did the U.S. have an institution specifically designed for the study of basic science.

Initially, the Hopkins model aroused the interest of American educators, and worthy imitations were underwritten by philanthropists: the University of Chicago by John D. Rockefeller and Stanford University by Leland Stanford, for example. Existing institutions strengthened their graduate schools. Rockefeller University, founded in 1901 as the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and the Carnegie Institution, founded in 1902, provided settings for fundamental research in medicine and the biological and physical sciences.

By a rare stroke of fortune, Flexner was given the chance to institutionalize his views of the importance of pure research. In the late 1920s, he was approached by the philanthropist Louis Bamberger and his sister, Mrs. Felix Fuld, who wanted to make a lasting contribution with their fortunes. Flexner suggested an institute specifically designed for fundamental research-a home for the world's greatest intellects, whose only responsibility would be to follow their interests wherever they might lead. Thus was born, in 1930, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Flexner's idea was powerful enough to attract, within a short period, the likes of Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel, the eccentric mathematician immortalized in the Godel theorem and celebrated in Douglas Hofstadter's best-selling Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Thread (New York, Basic Books, 1979). Faculty members of the institute included John von Neumann, a mathematician who developed the basic model of the modern computer; the humanist and historian Erwin Panofsky, who was as renowned in his field as was Einstein in physics; and others of comparable stature. In line with Flexner's thesis, their lack of direction or expectation was almost always regarded as crucial to the most creative fundamental work. For example, Godel devised a highly abstract mathematical theorem concerning "undecidable" mathematical statements that seemed on its face quite useless. However, it was the Godel theorem that sparked Alan Turing to conceive of the famous "Turing Machine," which forms the basis of how one seeks to determine whether a given problem is solvable by Computer. Similarly, von Neumann's early work with Computers had little apparent utility-until others found in it the basis for what we know as Computer software. For both scientists, the object was not to create a marketable product, but simply to answer a fundamental riddle.

This, as Flexner realized, may be the greatest paradox in the scientific world: The great discoveries are almost always the result of intellectual curiosity that is seeking only to satisfy itself. Yet federal funding today is increasingly directed not toward the individuals who usually make these fundamental discoveries, but toward programs with preset goals. Indeed, fundamental research is not-and by its nature can never be-the highest priority for government funding.

In my opinion, this condition is desirable as well as it is inevitable. It is for the best that untargeted-or "useless" research-while often the wellspring of practical application, can be most excitingly and productively nurtured in environments far removed from the stressful, competitive, economically driven, results oriented world of government and politics. It also is my view that such far-removed environments are best exemplified at independent facilities-the Institute for Advanced Study and similar institutions- whose charters center on the untargeted intellectual pursuit. I believe that as we move into the future, these independent institutions must assume a larger role as centers of and advocates for fundamental inquiry.

Important Investment

Since independent institutions are largely supported by private sources (the philanthropy of individuals, foundations, and corporations) and do not receive student tuitions, they are able to provide an environment for undirected scholarship that is undistracted by immediate concerns. Such research is conducted by individuals whose only criterion for selection is the capability of producing scholarship that can be seminal. And in this environment of freedom, the independent institutions are in a position to assume a role as centers of unfettered scientific inquiry.

The university is the place where most basic research will continue to occur. But universities serve many masters, including renewed and appropriate attention to undergraduate education. Faculty are under increasing pressures, including that they obtain increased research funding-and therefore tailor their work to government priorities. This trend is wrenching for the universities, whose traditional culture and governance structures resist the setting of internal priorities. Increasingly, universities are having to organize like businesses, conforming to an externally imposed model poorly suited to fundamental research.

As a result, scientists spend more time writing proposals and less time doing science. And these proposals, subject to the homogenizing effect of the peer review system, are by necessity more cautious than creative. As the number of proposals climbs, top researchers find themselves managing dozens of assistants and millions of dollars. Such individuals can rarely afford to take risks in their grant proposals.

The British physicist Freeman Dyson has observed that scientists, like other people, tend to follow current fashions. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, because topics of the moment may be significant. However, Dyson warns, "unfashionable people and unfashionable ideas have often been of decisive importance to the progress of science."

Dyson continues: "At any particular moment in the history of science, the most important and fruitful ideas are often lying dormant merely because they are unfashionable. Especially in mathematical physics there is commonly a time lag of 50 or 100 years between the conception of a new idea and its emergence into the mainstream of scientific thought. If this is the time scale of fundamental advance, it necessarily follows that anybody doing fundamental work in mathematical physics is almost certain to be unfashionable."

Corresponding Responsibility

In light of the opposing realities in both university and government settings, private efforts to support fundamental research assume very great importance. Fellowships supplied by the MacArthur, Packard, and other foundations enable individuals to pursue their interests over a long period, directed only by their intellectual curiosity. Along with the Carnegie Institution, the Institute for Advanced Study, and a few other independent centers, these programs offer virtually the only nonuniversity paths for fundamental research outside the life sciences.

This freedom to pursue pure and often unfashionable research brings with it responsibilities. One is to serve as a mode! for the scientific community to provide leadership and set standards for the scientific community. Another is to take unpopular positions with respect to government policies when that should prove necessary for the integrity of the scientific enterprise.

A more general responsibility is to constantly remind our goal-oriented society of the limits of planning and priority setting. In the end, no one can plan or predict the benefits that flow from the unfettered human intelligence; from what happens when Newton sits under the apple tree.

These are not responsibilities that independent institutions have sought in the past. But if they can serve as a constructive counterbalance to current trends, they can play a major role in preserving the health of science and of society as a whole.

Phillip A. Griffiths is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Prior to assuming this position, he was provost and James B. Duke Professor of Mathematics at Duke University. He is a member of the National Science Board and former chairman of the Board on Mathematical Sciences of the National Research Council. This year, he will assume the chair of the council's Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Resources.