Serendipity at the heart of some of the world’s greatest scientific breakthroughs

Chance and pure fluke are more important elements of innovation than many recognise

While the modern world of commercially driven research might lead you to believe that most innovators and inventors know exactly what they’re doing, the reality is quite different. It could be argued that all discovery and innovation – be it in science, engineering, design, technology, etc – has an element of serendipity to it. With experimentation at the heart of all research, it is rare that the producer knows exactly how a project will turn out.

"Almost all discoveries are serendipitous," says Prof Kingston Mills from the school of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity College Dublin. "When we apply for funding with specific research aims, 90 per cent of the things we find aren't what we were necessarily looking for. It's all about being inquisitive."

According to Mills, in the biological sciences there is evidence that increased serendipitous discovery is taking place. "Most big companies are increasingly turning towards academics for collaborative efforts. The reason for this is that their ideas are drying up to a certain extent and they don't have a huge pipeline."

It also relates to the approach industry takes to discovery compared with that of the more humble academic lab. Harvard professor and disruptive innovation expert Clayton Christensen argues that once companies get really big, the elements that made them successful in the first place start to work against them as they try reapplying the same rules again.

“Big pharma companies will have libraries of drugs, with anything up to 100,000 small molecule drugs in storage,” says Mills. “These drugs will be screened and tested in different ways to test their potential for various diseases. This controlled screening is the opposite of serendipity and it’s the favoured method used by drugs companies. Most people in labs won’t use such screening approaches as they are very expensive, labour intensive and time consuming.”


In the smaller lab setting researchers will tend to be more selective in trying to discover the pathways they want to target and – more importantly – work in an area with far more potential for the discovery of “unknown unknowns”.

If fate determines it, you may have begun with one research aim but ultimately fall upon something wholly different, and more significant. That is the true essence of serendipitous discovery and it has resulted in some of the greatest and most important breakthroughs in history.

From Velcro to viagra, penicillin to the pacemaker, there are numerous good examples of discoveries that came about by fluke. Recently, while messing around with clays and polymers for a different commercial research project, one Dr David Schiraldi PhD from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio, came upon a "low density, foam-like aerogel structure".

This new substance, which he has coined AeroClay, absorbs oil. Made by mixing clay, polymer and water in a blender, AeroClay floats on water and soaks up oil like a sponge. The oil can then be squeezed out and the AeroClay reused. The potential of such a product – given oil spills such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – has led to huge commercial interest and Schiraldi is no doubt grinning from ear to ear.

Examples can be found in Ireland also. "There's a molecule we have been working on here at the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science for some time that we think would be of great value to the biopharmaceutical industry, says Prof Lokesh Joshi, vice-president of research at NUI Galway. "But a visiting parasitologist, who just happened to sit in on a talk on the subject, has led us to believe it's far more valuable in parasitology."

This kind of interdisciplinary collaboration, which on the above occasion came about by chance, is something all universities and higher education institutions are trying to encourage more of in Ireland. Unlike Mills from TCD, however, Joshi believes we are seeing less serendipitous discovery than ever before. “One question that I have is whether the rate of serendipitous discovery is dropping in the modern era,” he asks.

"In the past, there was certainly more, as science was largely a matter of being observant. Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, all these innovators relied on serendipity. As we become more commercially driven, almost mechanised in our research approach, we frequently know our goal and we set out for that. There isn't really any room for serendipity.

"In most cases of innovation and discovery, if something doesn't work, its findings don't get published. Why it didn't work doesn't matter. You must move onto things that do work."

'Fail Better' exhibition at the Science Gallery
Exploring failure as essential part in innovation

This approach to research and experimentation relates to our own cultural understanding of failure. A new exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin (beginning on Friday) explores this idea in more detail.

"The 'Fail Better' exhibition looks at how failure is an essential part of the innovation process and yet it is something that is taboo and stigmatised," says Michael John Gorman, director of the Science Gallery. "Every day we must learn from failure and – reluctantly – embrace it. I'm not suggesting that all failure is good but we live in systems dominated by a fear of failure."

Gorman believes Irish people are particularly concerned about failure and this stifles creativity. “Other cultures would see it as less of a taboo, particularly in places like Silicon Valley in California where the motto is – ‘fail fast, fail early, fail often’.

“People talk about venture capitalists who won’t look at somebody unless they already have three failures to their credit. They’ve got the battle scars to prove they can hang on. But failure is very familiar to all good inventors and people designing new technologies. These are the kinds of people who are paying attention to the side effects, to the unanticipated, to the ‘what ifs’? That’s where serendipitous discovery lies.”