‘Useless’ research — the seed of great breakthroughs

Published: 4:03 AM, September 6, 2013
Updated: 10:50 PM, September 6, 2013
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A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to welcome our new batch of students to Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, I came across a wonderful and thought-provoking paper by Abraham Flexner — the educator whose report a century ago revolutionised medical education worldwide — titled The Usefulness of Useless Research.

I was struck by the clarity of the paper’s exposition on how research driven by curiosity leads to unexpected advances.

Flexner wrote this article in 1939 to address the growing discussion on why research has to be useful, a discourse that is happening to this day.

He recounts an illustrative interview that he had with George Eastman of Eastman Kodak fame. Flexner asked him who he thought was the most useful worker in science. Eastman said Guglielmo Marconi, the man credited with using wireless waves to produce the radio.

Flexner then pointed out to Eastman that the real credit belonged to James Clerk Maxwell, who predicted and developed the underlying principles of electromagnetism, and others like Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, who detected and demonstrated these electromagnetic waves.

Neither of these men had any thought about how their work would be useful.

To quote Flexner: “Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the most outstanding characteristic of modern thinking ... Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity, and the less they are deflected by the consideration of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare, but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest, which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.”


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