Academic work is work which is informed by nothing but the object of inquiry.
All humans need information as a basis for making informed decisions, and thus ultimately to pursue happiness and to lead a good life in general. This information pertains to reality. The objective of academic work is to provide such information, with as little bias as possible. Freedom from bias requires academic freedom.
Significance for Society and Economy
Human beings in most social contexts are influenced by man-made constraints, such as competition, being managed or being coerced. All results of activities in such conditions are informed by these influences, up to the point that it may be entirely artificial.
As an extreme example, consider a society driven only by such artificial information generated by itself. This society would lose contact to reality and effectively operate blindly. However, such failure to perceive reality will not change anything about the impact that reality has on this society. Eventually, the real basis sustaining this society would disappear (or perhaps even be destroyed by the actions of the society), with disastrous consequences.
The significance of academic work is to provide objective information. Therefore, sustaining an academic sector is not a luxury, it is a necessity for survival of any society.
"Academic" vs. "Pragmatic"
"Academic" is sometimes implied to be the opposite of "pragmatic" or, more or less equivalent, to "useful", "real", "relevant" etc. This is because "academic" is, unjustifiably, assumed to refer to fundamental or ultimate aspects only, whereas "pragmatic" and the other terms are presumed to focus (possibly exclusively) on proximal matters only. The use of all the terms shown in quotes is at least questionable in these contexts. The fundamental fallacy, however, is the assumption that the "pragmatic" focus on proximal aspects and the "academic" focus on fundamental or ultimate aspects are mutually exclusive.
A truly academic approach takes into account the full spectrum from the proximal to the ultimate. One aspect that is true is that accepting myopic restrictions to proximal aspects is not acceptable from an academic perspective. It is, however, wrong to assume that a restriction to proximal aspects makes sense at all. Some principled knowledge and approach, based on fundamentals and ultimate principles, is necessary for any pragmatic work.
Some Relevant Resources
Pages in category "Academia"
This category contains only the following page.