In Praise of “Useless” Endeavors

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times reviews The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press), founding Director Abraham Flexner's influential 1939 essay newly republished with a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor. The book, Tett writes, argues “that the most powerful intellectual and technological breakthroughs usually emerged from research that initially appeared 'useless,' without much relevance to real life.”

“Scientists such as Dijkgraaf fear this core principle is increasingly under threat ... Hence the reason Flexner’s essay needs to be reread, not just by government officials and business leaders but by scientists and voters as well. Justifying seemingly 'useless' research is never easy; in today’s cash-strapped world it is doubly hard. Now, more than ever, civic-minded billionaires need to swim against the tide; and maybe even recruit some modern-day Einsteins to take this fight forward.”

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