07: Regard chance and surprise as allies

In 1928, while on holiday, the Scots biologist and pharmacologist Alexander Fleming accidentally left a number of cultures of staphylococcus bacteria uncovered. He returned to find the growth of bacteria in one dish inhibited by a growing blue-green fungus, Penicillium notatum. Penicillin, which Fleming named after filtering it off from a hot solution of the fungus, was later found to dispose of several of the world’s major diseases.

From the microwave oven through the Post-it note and on to the Viagra pill, serendipity – a random turn of events that proves fortuitous – has played a major role in the process of innovation. [1] Yet if 21st century managers always say they’re ready for ‘out of the box’ thinking, in practice many bridle at the idea of an innovation project moving sideways. Why should chance, tangential discoveries absorb researchers in the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the difficult, and the costly?

Short-termism and conservatism in medical research

In The Life Scientific (BBC Radio 4, 5 Feb 2013) Jim Al-Khalili spoke with breast cancer pioneer, Professor Valerie Beral director of the University of Oxford Cancer Epidemiology Unit. Discussing long-term research she noted:

There is a problem with the current ethos of medical research. Grant givers want results in 3–5, not 10–20, years. It’s not the way medical research is going at the moment. The development of The Pill took place outside established medical funding (by a patron), as did IVF. My guess is that some wealthy person will one day fund an institute to do this research. They won’t publish every year in Nature or Science but they will get a Nobel Prize.

A related point is made in Tim Harford’s Pop-Up Economics, Hotpants v the knockout mouse (BBC Radio 4, 16/01/2013) in which he argues that organisations such as the National Institutes for Health (NIH) fund innovations that represent marginal improvements and relates the life story of Mario Capecchi, who studied genetics at Harvard but concluded it had become a bastion of ‘short-term intellectual gratification’. He went to the University of Utah and setup the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics. His work there on the ‘knockout mouse’ became the foundation stone for all gene therapy and he won a Nobel Prize accordingly. Harford notes that people such as Kopecki look like they are failing – until they succeed. He notes that institutions such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where Capecchi is now a principal, is more tolerant of failure than those such as NIH.