The Curious and the Useful

Should scholars and scientists concentrate on being useful, or should they be guided primarily by curiosity? This stark choice — between usefulness and curiosity — has been mobilised implicitly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in recent proposals to assess academic research on the basis of its social and economic impact. Reporters and commentators have been more explicit about the thrust of this. As The Guardian‘s Polly Curtis put it, “useful” research would be rewarded while pointless university studies [would] be weeded out.” The UK’s academic trade union, the University and College Union (UCU), has framed its resistance to the new proposals as a defence of curiosity, asserting that “curiosity-driven research … has led to major scientific and cultural advances.”
On the surface, these are comfortable battle lines. Who — not only among professional academics, but all those embrace the values of enlightenment and modernity — could be against curiosity, and thus for the impact agenda? But HEFCE’s argument is not so easily dismissed, for the simple reason that it appeals to common sense, which tells us that curiosity can be impractical and immoral: curious academics can be the authors of knowledge that is at best self-indulgent and useless, at worst dangerous. [ref]Phillips, R., “The impact agenda and geographies of curiosity.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00393.x (2010).[/ref]
This “common sense” is not hard-wired into our brains: it can be traced to debates that once raged in literary and philosophical circles, particularly in Early Modern England, where critics complained about curiosity’s elitism — cabinets of curiosity were status symbols — and its embroilments with geographical exploration and empirical science. This is not the place, and I am not the one, to rehearse these debates, though I will acknowledge their broader points: that the critique of curiosity is not necessarily an expression of anti-intellectualism; and that distinctions between curiosity and practicality are neither simply factual nor inevitable, but are historically constructed.
Where once-heterogeneous debates have been distilled into common sense, where they have been flattened out into a generalised ambivalence, something important has been lost. This is illustrated where literary articulations of curiosity are made literal, mistaken for real people. In her brilliant cultural history of curiosity, Barbara Benedict discusses Thomas Shadwell’s satire, The Virtuoso (1676), in which a scientist’s associate presents a parody of curiosity. He declares: “To study for use is base and mercenary, below the serene and quiet temper of a sedate Philosopher.” [ref]Thomas Shadwell, 1676, The Virtuoso, act 2, p. 30, cited by Barbara M. Benedict.  Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 48.[/ref] Articulating a widespread critique of pure curiosity, this figure represents the “waste of energy, imagination, learning, time, and money that could have been spent on public good.”[ref]Ibid. p. 19.[/ref] But Shadwell’s scientist was a literary device, nothing more; real scientists and their counterparts in the social sciences and humanities are more textured, combining elements of curiosity with those of practicality.
Pairing well-developed literary and philosophical approaches to curiosity with sociological and geographical investigations of the same, it will be possible to ask new questions about this vital subject, its place in everyday life, and its relationships with practical activities. In this vein, Richard Sennett traces some everyday sites in which curiosity is mobilised and valued, including work places such as construction sites, hospitals, and factories. He argues persuasively that curiosity can be embedded within practical activity, for example in craftwork, where he finds “the intimate, fluid join between problem solving and problem finding.”[ref]Richard Sennett. The Craftsmen (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 2008), 33.[/ref] As in craftwork, in academic research the curious and the practical can be natural bedfellows. Research motivated by curiosity can have practical spin-offs — something repeatedly pointed out by HEFCE’s critics, and in wider debates about the usefulness of academic freedom. A more fundamental synergy between these spheres is also recognisable: in the funding of doctoral studentships in which universities collaborate with industrial partners, in the “translational sciences” in which problems identified in medical and other forms of practice are isolated for focused and more abstract investigation, and in progressive pedagogical techniques such as Problem Based Learning (PBL), in which practical problems “are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning.”[ref]E Pawson, E Fournier, M Haigh, O Muniz, J Traffords, S Vajoczki, “Problem-based Learning in Geography,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30, no. 1 (2006):103-116, 106 (emphasis added).[/ref]Surveys have shown that most academics are both intellectually curious and interested in making a difference in the world. In the UK, this appears to have been acknowledged by the Minister for Universities and Science in Britain’s new Conservative-Liberal Coalition Government, David Willetts, who used his first  keynote speech (on 20 May 2010) to express “doubts about the impact agenda proposed for the Research Excellence Framework.” He acknowledged a “crucial difference between impact and the impact agenda,” noting that “impact … is often what motivates academics, whether they’re researching medicine to improve patient care or conducting research in the archives that can transform understanding of our country’s history.”
Willetts hinted that the impact agenda might be modified or jettisoned, and that socially and economically productive research might be encouraged and rewarded in other ways. As he put it: “We must place greater faith in the serendipitous paths that researchers take.” But, even if the new government follows through on these criticisms of the impact agenda, the controversy surrounding this should not be forgotten too quickly. For one thing, social and economic impact is already assessed in the UK by the social science and humanities research councils (the ESRC and AHRC) and this looks set to continue, as will broader debates about the “relevance” of academic research and the legitimacy of spending on higher education and research councils in an age of austerity. For another, controversy surrounding the impact agenda has been productive in prompting new debates about impact and curiosity. These debates, no longer structured around a simplistic battle between impact and curiosity, will concentrate on asking what kind of impact and what kind of curiosity. This means stepping back from the rush to relevance, remembering that some high impact academic scholarship has been highly regrettable: Karl Haushofer had impact! [ref]Karl Haushofer was a professor of geopolitics whose work (e.g. the concept of lebensraum) helped legitimate the Nazi Reich’s overseas wars and expansionist policies. See: Gearóid Ó Tuathail, Simon Dalby, Paul Routledge, eds. The Geopolitics Reader (London: Routledge, 1998).[/ref]The Orientalists had impact![ref]By ‘The Orientalists’, I mean the scholars and artists whose representations of the East informed and helped legitimate British and French colonisation in North Africa. See: Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).[/ref] Avril Maddrell argues that academics need not only be more “outward-facing,” but should also debate what this means, negotiating and politicising the kind of impact we wish to make. [ref]Avril Maddrell, “Academic geography as terra incognita,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35 (2010): 149-153.[/ref] Taking cues from early modern debates about curiosity, we might also step back from recent blanket endorsements of this term, and return to asking challenging ethical questions about curiosity and related terms such as adventure and exploration. Stepping back from impact-or-bust and also from unbridled curiosity, we may then be able to ask more productive questions about each of these. To this end, we need not speak of the curious or the useful, but rather of the curious and the useful.
Richard Phillips teaches Postcolonial Criticism and Historical Geography at the University of Liverpool. His books include Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure (Routledge 1997) and Sex, Politics and Empire: A Postcolonial Geography (Manchester 2006), and he is the editor of Muslim Spaces of Hope (Zed 2009).

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