Nobel laureates demand a review of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s funding process.
As Nobel laureates, we are all dedicated to scientific enquiry and know that unexpected observations and discoveries have had far-reaching benefits to industry and society. Enabling and following up on the most interesting of these unexpected observations will reap the greatest rewards.
Some scientists are coming out today in opposition to EPSRC’s Delivery Plan, a strategic planning document that contains more top-down elements than the scientists would like. Some are even going so far as to hold a funeral for the death of science.
What I find most interesting about the quote I’ve pulled from the letter written by Nobel laureates is not their resistance to anything but bottom-up determination of the direction of science — that’s predictable. It is, rather, their misuse of the notion of serendipity, as if it somehow bolsters their case.
The fact of serendipity — let us simply treat it as a fact for now — does not imply that there ought to be no direction to science, nor does it imply that whatever direction there is to science ought only to come from the bottom up. Even if we were to link serendipity closely with science (a la Merton), that would not imply that research funding agencies ought not to provide any direction to the scientific research portfolio.
Many people shorten the definition of serendipity too quickly to the notion of ‘accidental’ discovery, and then they suppose that serendipity must exclude anything done on purpose. Serendipity actually involves making unexpected (and fortuitous) discoveries through a combination of both luck and sagacity. Serendipity is thus neither a faculty (the possession of which allows someone to make such discoveries) nor an event of a certain quality (the discovery itself), but rather it involves the combination of both, and an interpretation of this combination.
One of the things that’s needed for an attribution of serendipity is that there be something we are looking for — something other than what we discover serendipitously. Serendipity thus requires a frame of reference according to which the unexpected discovery can be interpreted as unexpected — that is, a something that we do expect to discover. Serendipity does not require, however, that the expected discovery be determined in any particular way (bottom-up, top-down, or what have you).
It’s an attractive tactic for scientists to appeal to serendipity (one cannot plan accidental discoveries, after all). It’s even more attractive when the scientists can appeal to their expertise (we Nobel laureates know discoveries). But the appeal to serendipity is fallacious if it is taken to support the claim that science funders must take a laissez faire approach to science funding.