Enlarge / Science! (credit: BRICK 101)
In an era of intense, globalized economic competition and massive government debt, can we afford fundamental scientific research? Lately, the answer seems to be “not really.” Companies that once supported R&D have cut back dramatically, and the US government hasn’t kept pace with inflation when it comes to funding most research.
In the last 50 years, the US’ spending on research has gone from over two percent of the GDP to 0.8 percent.
And there’s intense pressure to make sure the research that’s still funded has practical applications, from the National Institute of Health’s translational research programs to Lamar Smith’s attempt to ensure that National Science Foundation only funds research that boosts “national health, prosperity, or welfare.”
That’s the atmosphere that led Robbert Dijkgraaf of the Institute for Advanced Study to write a defense of fundamental research.
As the resulting text was being released, the public was reeling over the question of whether there were such things as “alternative facts.” Since then, the Trump administration proposed a budget that would radically cut funding for almost every area of scientific research. You can’t say Dijkgraaf’s decision wasn’t timely.
Dijkgraaf’s argument takes the form of a small book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.
In it are two essays, one from Dijkgraaf himself titled The World of Tomorrow and the original Usefulness of Useless Knowledge penned in 1939 by Abraham Flexner, who helped found the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).
Both offer defenses of what they loosely call “useless knowledge,” or scientific effort without immediate application.
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