Sunday, April 16, 2017

Usefulness in the Eyes of Beholder

Sometime last week, saw this article in our local newspaper mentioning Nur Adlyka who recently rose to fame due to her black hole research. The article moves on to describe the importance of basic research to the country, a point that some of us have considered dearly and have been reiterating this point many times. Slightly earlier, an article appeared in Nature Chemistry entitled "On the Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" essentially saying the same thing with more examples of distinguished scientists and their discoveries that eventually led to documented new technologies. It also referenced the classical 1939 article of Flexner of the same title. So, it is a recurring issue and as always it seems to imply that man heeds little of history. Short term gains have always been thought of being more beneficial than long term ones.

I have never liked the term 'useless knowledge' that appeared as part of the title of these articles since they tend to be contradictory in nature. What is often there has always been the priority of what is considered more useful. People and organisations have always set out priorities in their decision-making. Recently, I had a personal encounter on this matter where technologists are deemed more important than the scientists who helped spur some of these technologies by some decision makers. I do accept that people have priorities but what was frustrating then was a reversed decision and what I perceived as a lopsided affair with imbued personal interests. In that incident, I was trying to be helpful and I have no interest in taking charge of matters. Personal views aside, fundamental sciences have often being considered as merely tools (not progenitors) of the applied ones or of the technologies by some. Such situation reminds me of the Malay proverb of 'kacang lupakan kulit'. Nevertheless, as I said, priorities are always there and most often tend to be one-tracked mind since people do poorly with multidimensional decisions. The level of usefulness tends to be dependent on this priority structure.

Having said that, this is why we need leaders and decision-makers that are wise, which often comes with experience, with significant breadth and depth of knowledge. The leaders ought to be selfless and able to brush aside personal interests when necessary. Only then, what is deemed useful will be more comprehensive. Without this, it is natural for those who are deemed less useful to shy away from contributing. Let us pray that we have more wise leaders and decision makers when it comes to science and life at large.

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