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Making use of knowledge

Helga Nowotny

Among steep rocks on a hillside in southern Africa, a team of researchers is at work collecting poop left by animals that died long ago.

Why, one might ask, are they poring over this beastly legacy and why is the European Research Council funding the trip? Well, it is because a midden left by a colony of hyraxes—small rodent-like creatures that are actually more closely related to elephants—may provide clues to understanding climate change.

When brought home and analysed in the laboratory, these samples will provide an insight into changes in the animal’s diet over time caused by the effects of climate on vegetation at a local level. These “stratified accumulations of urine pellets contain reliable, high resolution records of long-term climate and vegetation change in southern Africa spanning the last 50,000 years”, according to the researchers. Who would have thought it?

In science, knowledge often carries far more potential value than one might at first expect. Obviously, any uselessness comes from the fact that no one knows how to use it—yet. But embedded in artefacts and phenomena that have not been brought together before may lie knowledge essential to future developments and even new technologies.

The poop is one of many examples that illustrate how important it is, at first, not to think in terms of the obvious use of research but in terms of its potential. Clearly, creative use requires a creative mind. But it also requires an environment that fosters creativity and space for individual curiosity to thrive. This means a place where researchers have the time and freedom to pursue their curiosity-driven ideas and the opportunity for collaboration and informal exchange of ideas.

Creating creative environments is, therefore, crucially important. They depend on simple material factors (long-term funding, resources, facilities) and less obvious things (internationally open recruitment policies, diversity, scientific leadership, flat hierarchies, cross-disciplinary efforts). Creative environments are breeding grounds for new ideas, whose seeming uselessness may turn out to be the opposite.

In research policy, the traditional insistence on demonstrating usefulness will fail us wherever the potential of new knowledge generated through frontier research outstrips what we perceive to be useful.

The reason why so many technological forecasts miss the mark lies in the near impossibility of predicting future uses. Put another way, uses and users do not exist from the outset, they develop alongside the ideas. Ideally, this happens in user-centred innovation eco-systems, even if it takes years for new discoveries to be translated into, say, a drug or a treatment.

The Horizon 2020 research programme is all about useful knowledge and economic growth. But we should not forget how it all started. In 1620, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientiarum was published. On the frontispiece there was a ship passing through the Pillars of Hercules, which marked the boundaries of knowledge of the ancient world, then thought of as unsurpassable. Bacon’s vision of useful knowledge was based on his belief that the systematic investigation of the natural world offers a way to better understand the human condition.

Similar aspirations arose throughout Europe. Others championed the experimental method linked to practical objectives, for example, in finding new tools to extend the range of scientific investigations. The so-called scientific revolution, initiated by a small group of people, captured the imagination of many and became a social movement. This pattern was followed by what the US economic historian Joel Mokyr has called the Industrial Enlightenment, and was based on a strong alliance with arts and crafts, and linking it to opportunities offered by nascent capitalism.

Bacon’s Horizon 1620 programme marked the beginnings of modern science in Europe. Although it focused on generating useful knowledge for practical ends, it never lost sight of, nor a profound respect for, the almost infinite and clever ways in which nature hides its secrets. Its practitioners were convinced that knowledge, in order to become useful, has to be cumulative, so systematic inquiry has to be sustained. Its results and procedures have to be verified by peers. All assertions have to be open to criticism and contestation.

Therefore, usefulness of knowledge is not a matter of simply ‘applying’ knowledge. It is an emergent property, which arises under the right conditions. The current financial crisis is a reminder of the continuing need for such knowledge—and the opportunity that lies in creating it—and the ERC can help.

We need individual curiosity more than ever, and the creative environments that nurture it. But we should abandon obsolete ideas about what is useful and useless, and we should stop trying to separate one from the other.

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Helga Nowotny is president of the European Research Council. This article is based on her keynote lecture at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin, Ireland, in July.