Funny counterpoint to the Golden Fleece Awards, which highlight purported wastes of taxpayer money.
But there’s a serious message here that ought to be treated seriously: we can’t know ahead of time which research will be valuable.
Let’s call this the appeal to serendipity. Such appeals are not new. Vannevar Bush appeals to serendipity in Science — The Endless Frontier as a way of justifying public funding for autonomous basic research. Wilhelm von Humboldt made a similar claim around the time of the founding of the University of Berlin: the State will benefit more from the University if its researchers are free to pursue their own research ideas wherever they wish.
The Golden Goose is designed to persuade policymakers to avoid that outcome [of cutting funding for basic research].
In other words, the Golden Goose is a way to highlight the value of serendipity.
Many discoveries occur “far beyond the imaginations” of people who start out investigating something obscure, Chalfie [one of the award winners] says. “These accidents happen all the time,” he says. “If we’re lucky, we realize that we should be paying attention to them.”
What strikes me as dangerous in such appeals to serendipity is that they may discourage us from using our imaginations. I don’t agree that it would have been impossible to imagine some of the beneficial outcomes of the current crop of Golden Egg winners. In fact, I think researchers should be encouraged to think about the broader impacts of their research. Accidents — some of the fortuitous — will still happen. But the idea that researchers should just wait for such lucky accidents strikes me as wrong-headed.
I’ll take it one step further. Appeals to serendipity are fallacious unless they include an element of sagacity.