An institute for advanced study: what purpose?

In the short time before the Spring semester commences, it’s perhaps worthwhile to step back and consider  the question of: why an institute for advanced study?

There are quite a few such institutes these days, and not just here in the States, but the granddaddy of them all is the one at Princeton, where Albert Einstein spent the War years in the 1940’s. That Institute has as its key mission “to encourage and support fundamental research in the sciences and humanities – the original, often speculative, thinking that produces advances in knowledge that change the way we understand the world.”

Note the idea of producing advances that “change the way we understand the world”.  That idea of course echos Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift. Not all research does this; most findings are incremental in nature. To aim for paradigm shifts is bold and fraught with risk.

Which brings to mind this commentary on venture capitalists, which appeared on my twitter feed today. Here the operative meme is that VC’s are too cautious these days. That like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, they should take bigger risks:

VC firms must behave more like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which funds radical scientific innovations over long periods of time – and less like the National Institutes of Health, which prefers incremental, almost-sure advances.

 I would argue that it is in institutes for advanced studies that such science takes place, often with great collective purpose and across seemingly vastly different domains of knowledge. It is certainly what we are about at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

I’ll close with this quote, lifted from our web site, that captures Krasnow nicely:

In the end, we believe that there is no substitute for recruiting the very best people and turning them loose to explore the fascinating world of thought somehow emergent from our biological nature and evolution as Homo sapiens.