February 23, 2018

Credit: Bill Shrout / National Archives and Records Administration

Back in the 1990s, the Digital Libraries Initiative from the National Science Project supported a small project out of Stanford University. It sounded obscure, and a lot of people thought it wasn’t exciting, and would have little real-world application. But on that team were two graduate students – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – the founders of Google

The modest grant ended up paying off very well, according to Robbert Dijkgraaf, a physics professor and the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He recently wrote a companion essay to Abraham Flexner’s 1939 piece, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” explaining why Flexner’s ideas are even more relevant today.

We talk with Dijkgraaf about why governments should fund more basic research that doesn’t necessarily have immediate results, like the project at Stanford – and how it can actually reap huge rewards in the long run.

Three Takeaways: 

  • “We are so dependent on a few people [or] often a single person with a vision that wants to go in a direction nobody else wants to go,” Dijkgraaf says. Everyone might think their ideas are laughable and pointless now, but those with a vision can end up striking “a pot of gold” and making big discoveries.
  • Sputnik was a “wakeup call” that prompted the U.S. government to fund more basic research. It was an optimistic time for science. People really believed that research investments would not only improve safety and security, but increase well-being, too. Now, Dijkgraaf thinks we’ve lost that optimism, because even though our lives are improved by science, we aren’t as aware of (or concerned about) those advancements.
  • Dijkgraaf says that investment in basic research has far-reaching effects across many different disciplines. When governments make those investments, they should take some risks when choosing projects. That seemingly niche or “useless” funding might end up being really useful in 20 or 50 years. 

More Reading: 

Robbert Dijkgraaf, research, Sci and Tech

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