There Are No New Ideas Part 3: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

In this blog series I visit some old (and I mean old) literature to illustrate how ideas of knowledge mobilization and research impact have very deep roots. Part 3 looks at an essay by Abraham Flexner from 1939 (yes, 78 years ago). Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) was an American educator whose 1910 report is credited with 20th century reform of medical education in Canada and the US. He cited the German model of medical education that was based on biomedical research and knowledge setting up his appreciation for research and its eventual impact on medical practice. On the surface his essay makes the case for the protection of basic science without need for application or impact and thus doesn’t seem to tell today’s story of knowledge mobilization and impact. However, reading between the lines he makes the case for excellent basic research as the underpinning of excellent research impact.

Harper's October 1939Flexner, A. (1939, October). The usefulness of useless knowledge. Harpers, 179, 544-552.

Flexner begins his essay recalling a conversation he had with George Eastman who proclaimed Marconi (credited with inventing wireless transmission in 1896) as the “most useful worker in science in the world”. Flexner’s response was “Marconi’s share was practically minimal”. By that he meant that Marconi was the last person in a long line of scientists including Maxwell, who first joined electric and magnetic forces to develop the theory of electromagnetism in 1865, and Hertz, who worked on electromagnetic waves between 1886-1889. Flexner claims that Marconi was just a “clever technician”. “Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use. Marconi was a clever inventor with no thought but use”.

This is Flexner’s thesis, that research should be supported without thought to its use.

Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations 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.”

However, by linking Marconi’s “useful” invention with the “useless” knowledge created by Maxwell and Hertz, Flexner has joined up research with impact and created a logical pathway from one to the other. This is what we do when creating a knowledge mobilization plan or when collecting the evidence to write a research impact case study.

Flexner also describes the reverse.

Not infrequently the tables are turned, and practical difficulties encountered in industry or in laboratories stimulate theoretical inquiries which may or may not solve the problems by which they were suggested, but may also open up new vistas, useless at the moment, but pregnant with future achievements, practical and theoretical.”

This describes stakeholder engaged research where the challenge felt by non-academic stakeholders informs subsequent academic research. We know this today from folks like Bowen and Graham, who describe the critical role of engaging end users in research. However, Bowen and Graham didn’t reference any literature before 1997!

Flexner essentially describes the model of the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a centralized research assessment exercise which includes the institution’s ability to describe the impacts of research beyond the academy. The REF is not concerned with creating future impacts but requires institutions to collect the evidence of research impact that had already occurred. 80% of the REF score is the excellence of the research with 20% being the impact of that excellent research. Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism, if linked to Marconi through evidence describing an impact pathway from one to the other, would have scored highly on both research excellence and research impact.

Research impact was introduced in the 2014 assessment exercise. Flexner described the need for excellent research and its ability to inform impact in 1939.

There really are no new ideas.

Read the rest of this blog series:

There Are No New Ideas Part 1: Scholarship and Social Agitation

There Are No New Ideas Part 2: Politics and the English Language

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