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Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov is widely credited with saying that “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’.” Scientific folklore is full of tales of accidental discovery, from the stray Petri dish that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin to Wilhelm Röntgen’s chance detection of X-rays while tinkering with a cathode-ray tube.

That knowledge often advances through serendipity is how scientists, sometimes loudly, justify the billions of dollars that taxpayers plough into curiosity-driven research each year. And it is the reason some argue that increasing government efforts to control research — with an eye to driving greater economic or social impact — are at best futile and at worst counterproductive.

But just how important is serendipity to science? Scientists debating with policymakers have long relied on anecdotal evidence. Studies rarely try to quantify how much scientific progress was truly serendipitous, how much that cost or the circumstances in which it emerged.

Serendipity can take on many forms, and its unwieldy web of cause and effect is difficult to constrain. Data are not available to track it in any meaningful way. Instead, academic research has focused on serendipity in science as a philosophical concept.

The European Research Council aims to change that. It has given biochemist-turned-social-scientist Ohid Yaqub a sizeable €1.4-million (US$1.7-million) grant to gather evidence on the role of serendipity in science. Yaqub argues that he has found a way to do so.

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Category: Science