Luck in Scientific Work

Luck In Scientific Work

Last week I wrote a post about Alexander Fleming’s luck in discovering penicillin. I want to continue this discussion this week, as I left it (deliberately) one-sided.

Fleming went on holiday without cleaning his dishes, some mold grew that seemed to secrete something that killed some types of bacteria. Had he cleaned the dishes, he would not have made the discovery and nobody would know his name today.

But we have to acknowledge that this little piece of luck found itself in a scientific laboratory, and it was not luck that led Fleming to understanding the importance of the mold. Other people might not have noticed what was happening for example, only a chemist working with bacteria would have understood the importance of the gap developing between the mold and the bacteria..

In effect, we could see the growth of the mold was part of the experiment process, even though it was unforeseen. Without the scientific process it becomes merely mold!

Here is an article about other discoveries that owe something to luck.

Luck as a Scientist

From the various articles in the Journal of Responsible Innovation special issue on luck, I learn that luck is seen by scientists as playing a greater role in science’s social worlds, rather than the experiments themselves. Who receives your project (luckily someone who shares your approach maybe) could be important in terms of whether it receives funding or is rejected. Meeting someone in a lift who gives you a tip about something, or flicking through the cable TV in your hotel room and coming across a program that sets off a chain reaction in your thinking that leads to an understanding, lucky events that may lead to something big.

Obviously, we can take this as far back as we want, and bring in global political events such as wars and pandemics, but lucky encounters on a local level do seem to be important in building careers and carrying out scientific processes.

Luck in the Future

Now the big question then. What about luck in the future regarding something that you have developed yourself as a scientist?

Let’s take the invention of the electronic joystick by SEGA in 1969 as en example. This revolutionary control system boasted a fire button that enabled players of their Missile game to steer their missile towards enemy tanks on the screen. Little did the developers know (nor could they have predicted) the uses that this technology would be put to in the future: remote surgery techniques, flying modern jet aircraft, and flying unmanned drones over foreign lands, executing people from the comfort of an office in the USA.

There is a risk that your discovery will go on to be used for things that you might not like. You may be lucky or you may be unlucky, and may receive credit for having bettered the world, or unlucky and face huge criticism in the future.

Luck in Scientific Investigation

A lucky discovery

I have just read a Special Issue of the Journal of Responsible Innovation all about the role of luck in science that raises some interesting and entertaining questions about responsibility. One of the events that is often discussed in the field of ‘science and luck’ (oh yes, there is a field), is that of Alexander Flemming’s discovery of penicillin.

Fleming was lucky enough to be able to take a holiday from his work in St Mary’s Hospital in 1928, and rushed out of the lab leaving some of his dishes unwashed that he had been using to do some experiments with a bacteria that causes boils, sore throats and abscesses.

When he returned, refreshed, and started to tidy up, he noticed that one of the dishes had some mold growing on it, and around the mold was clear. No bacteria! Maybe the mold was producing something that was able to kill the bacteria!

Fleming called it mold juice, and he discovered that it worked against lots of bacteria, but it was unstable and difficult to work with. It was only really of interest because it could be used to isolate different forms of bacteria, so those that were sensitive to the mold juice substance (something that we call penicillin) from those that were not.

It could have all stopped there, but a team in Oxford discovered that if they gave the substance to mice it seemed to work against streptococci, so they tried it on a person, a police officer with a badly infected cut. It seemed to work, but they did not have enough material to continue the treatment, and unfortunately the patient died after they had to stop treatment.

Unlucky for him.

11 years had passed by this point, but times had changed with the Second World War well underway. The Brits were busy with the war effort, so the researchers contacted their colleagues in the USA to see if they would be interested in continuing the work. They took it on and started to look for more efficient production methods, and more productive strains to develop.

Well, what would you know, they found a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria fruit market that seemed to work fantastically.

As the US joined the war there was a push to scale up production, and within 3 years the pharmaceutical companies had produced enough (and tried it out enough on injured soldiers) to supply the allied armies with enough to treat all the seriously wounded troops from D-Day.

A Lucky Boy

Fleming was given the Nobel Prize, and today we all know his name. But we might say that he was a lucky boy. His discovery was at least partially beyond his control after all. If he had cleaned up properly before his holiday the world might be a very different place today.

Assessment of Responsible Innovation: Methods and Practices on Free Download

Assessment of Responsible Innovation: Methods and Practices is edited by Emad Yaghmaei and Ibo van de Poel, both well known in the field of Responsible innovation.

As regular readers will know, the EU has funded a long series of projects aimed at building tools and tool kits to help various sectors implement Responsible Innovation Approaches. This collection presents many of these tools while aligning aims with the United Nations sustainable development goals.

The book is divided into three parts.

Part 1. Reflections on Responsible Innovation.

Part 1 offers thoughts and perspectives based on personal experience from working within or alongside some of these projects. We find a historically grounded overview of different approaches and views of responsibility and democracy (and their relationship with scientific processes), and some interesting examples of approaches to networking responsible practices taken across the world.

Part 2. Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in Companies.

Part 2 offers 4 chapters that raise lots of interesting questions and issues regarding the relationship between RRI and Corporate Social Responsibility, obstacles and drivers for RRI implementation, costs and benefits from following and RRI approach and possible roles for voluntary standards. 

Part 3. Responsible Innovation Assessment.

This third and final part of the book presents a compendium of different approaches, methods and metrics for assessing responsible innovation practices spread across 8 chapters.

The chapters raise a host of questions regarding which indicators and metrics might be useful if trying to measure effectiveness of RI and RRI processes, which types of assessment could be carried out, opportunities and challenges faced, the volume and depth possible for integrating practices, as well as discussion of pitfalls, all set alongside a series of proposals and a host of suggestions for methodologies that could be followed.

Several of the EU projects I have posted about in the past are mentioned, with their tool-sets and approaches explained and analyzed in easy-to-understand terms. There are some interesting points of focus too, from ICT and digital transformation to employee creativity and reflexive skills.  

The Collection

This collection brings together a broad spectrum of approaches that would otherwise find themselves scattered across project websites, offering the reader an overview of what could be seen as different practices that have grown out of different interests and focusses.

The editors have set out to bring these developments together, and have succeeded in doing so in a very readable and interesting way.   The book is a kind of overview of tool-kits and approaches and practices, a fine companion for anyone interested in Responsible Innovation. Download it here.