re Rx: Dedicated to exploring, informing and reflecting on the world of repurposing research
Five years ago, in an essay in Harper's called The Ecstasy of Influence, I issued a call to artists and critics to embrace the reality of "repurposing" in the creative act -- the timeless wisdom of appropriation and reuse of existing materials in the realm of arts and culture. In one section, called "Undiscovered Public Knowledge" I wrote (or, actually, retyped, since my words in this instance were wholly appropriated themselves from Steve Fuller's book The Intellectual):
"Artists and intellectuals despondent over the prospects for originality can take heart from a phenomenon identified about twenty years ago by Don Swanson, a library scientist at the University of Chicago. He called it "undiscovered public knowledge." Swanson showed that standing problems in medical research may be significantly addressed, perhaps even solved, simply by systematically surveying the scientific literature. Left to its own devices, research tends to become more specialized and abstracted from the real-world problems that motivated it and to which it remains relevant. This suggests that such a problem may be tackled effectively not by commissioning more research but by assuming that most or all of the solution can already be found in various scientific journals, waiting to be assembled by someone willing to read across specialties. Swanson himself did this in the case of Raynaud's syndrome, a disease that causes the fingers of young women to become numb. His finding is especially striking—perhaps even scandalous—because it happened in the ever-expanding biomedical sciences."
Little did I know at the time how relevant the medical analogy might actually be, or that a dedicated and knowledgeable group was busy taking up precisely the cause of "repurposing" in the noble effort to save those lives left behind by our culture's characteristic infatuation with "innovation," at the expense of solving problems in the here and now with materials or methods already close at hand. Partnership for Cures is an inspiring and relevant cause I'm proud to support with my own accidental clarion call for Undiscovered Public Knowledge. Any old set of hands on a keyboard can try to change the way you think, or "challenge a paradigm" -- but Partnership for Cures is doing so as a byproduct of their passion for making the sick well again.