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‘Useless’ research — the seed of great breakthroughs

‘Useless’ research — the seed of great breakthroughs

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.”

WHEN DRIVEN BY CURIOSITY

To wit, one might say that that was yesterday, but today is different.

Well, I can recount many recent stories which continue to illustrate the value and potential of curiosity-driven research.

Dr Ahmed Zewail, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, gave in the article, Curiouser and Curiouser: Managing Discovery Making, many more examples of breakthroughs based on curiosity-driven research, where the quest was the only motivation and practical utility was not a consideration.

One example is the development of the laser by Dr Charles Townes. He was driven only by fundamental questions on microwave spectroscopy and amplification of light. This work led to the laser now widely used in science medicine, and is a part of our daily lives.

Another story is that of Dr Eric Kandel, who was curious about how the brain works.

Dr Kandel began his study many years ago by examining Aplysia (squid). This work led to a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his groundbreaking research showing how memory is encoded in the brain’s neuronal circuits. Now, this research has become an area of intense interest for treatments of various types of memory disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.

In short, I think Flexner’s perspective still remains fresh and valid. Curiosity remains the foundation of discovery research, and seeds many of the innovations that lead to useful inventions which change our lives.

CREATE THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT

Dr Zewail says there are three essentials to promote curiosity-driven research. First, the right people: Research and development needs young, creative and curious minds. Second, adequate resources. And, finally, an atmosphere that promotes the interaction, exchange and fertilisation of ideas.

Discovery research is not the only kind of research — the development of inventions and tools and medicines that help enhance life are just as critical.

Applied research requires people who can look at problems, understand needs and draw ideas from a variety of sources to develop, test and modify solutions. The mindset is that of a problem-solver and inventor.

Just like curiosity-driven research, this type of research also requires the right people and the right atmosphere that promotes interaction. It also requires a risk-taking culture and resources. We need both kinds of research to flourish and interact to optimise the development of solutions to our various needs and difficulties.

Unfortunately, the timeline between discovery and translation can take a long time. Developing places for natural interactions to take place between this community of discoverers and inventors with the potential consumers of the inventions could make this process easier and maybe faster.

Harnessing and encouraging curiosity from childhood will go a long way in identifying and promoting the enquiring nature that leads individuals to become researchers. But we also need this as a general principle in education to foster the creativity that is required for the knowledge economy.

While we clearly want to develop researchers, we need innovation to flourish in the general workplace culture. One need not be a researcher to come up with better ways to improve work, reduce costs or improve morale — one just needs a mind that looks at problems as an opportunity, not a misery.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

This is part of a series on the way we learn. To read the other articles, visit tdy.sg/comkrishnan.