Many years ago, the wise king Jafar of Serendip spared no expense in the education of his three sons. He called in the best tutors and scientists from around the world to prepare his sons to be rulers, but soon realized that books and teachers would not be enough. The sons would have to depart the kingdom on a journey of discovery in foreign lands to find knowledge and wisdom not contained in any book.
So begins the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, which through Horace Walpole gave rise to the term serendipity – accidental but fortunate discoveries in science unrelated to the goal of the study. Although the meaning of the term in later years has shifted somewhat into implying a large degree of luck (perhaps a sign of envy from competitors), the process of incidental discovery is no mystery. In fact, it is inevitable that hard work and a deeper understanding of a complex system, along with new data and observations, opens new avenues and insights. There is no doubt that luck can be a major factor, as in the case of Alexander Fleming waking up one morning to find his agar plates contaminated by a mould which eradicated any nearby bacteria. That mould was later identified as penicillin, which brought on a revolution in medicine and finally swung the long battle between humans and bacteria into our favour. Similarly, Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity by leaving a photographic plate overnight in a box. In both cases, their hard work and diligence allowed them to capitalise fully on lucky circumstances which would have passed many of us by.
Sometimes, serendipitous discoveries result in billion dollar industries, as in the case of a marker protein used in almost every microbiological experiment since the 70s, which was a consequence of a modestly funded study of luminescent jellyfish. Once the principles of the molecule were understood, industry quickly enhanced the product with an efficiency only a market economy can provide.
There are also some commercial enterprises whose primary products are serendipitous. One very interesting example of this is the Fraunhofer Institute, as you may recognise as the inventors of the mp3 audio format. Their main source of income is to perform research on a bespoke level for external clients, and as a consequence, they have amassed a considerable range of patents in virtually every field they operate in.
Previously, I have argued that public funding of science is a waste, and that the human and financial resources would be better allocated elsewhere (i.e. not allocated at all), so wouldn’t that imply that scientific advances would be halted when funding dries out? Perhaps not at all, as long as the resources of other actors were freed up and invested into research. One way to achieve this is by removing costly and inefficient regulations on industry. The best example of the massive overheads of regulation is the cost of developing a new drug. On average, US pharma companies must be prepared to gamble $2 billion for each new drug development. As bad as that sounds, it is actually worse since the drug may still not be approved or commercially viable. Most of this cost is due to draconian FDA regulations, which in the true spirit of statism are intended to protect the populace, but whose effects are instead to deny them risky but potentially efficient drugs.
Let’s say that regulatory costs were cut, freeing up a billion dollars per drug. What would pharma do with these extra funds? Most likely, they will invest it back into research and development. Some of these funds would even open up a sector of businesses who specialize in a specific field but who operate similarly to the Fraunhofer Institute. If for instance a drug company needed genetic screening based on fruit flies, it would be more profitable for them to outsource the study to a business specializing in it than to set up an in-house facility. The diligent fruit fly business would perform the study, deliver the results, and also potentially develop products of their own based on serendipitous discoveries, elevating them to proper pharma companies in their own right. And it doesn’t end there – perhaps the fruit fly business needs support from another business focusing on yeast, and perhaps that work leads to further discoveries and so on ad infinitum.
The economic gains of opening up the market for bespoke research companies similar to the Fraunhofer is a strong enough argument in itself, but there are also other benefits that are harder to quantify. First, scientific support companies have to produce real and replicable results in order to maintain their good reputation and gain more clients. As I have argued previously, academia does not. Second, the incentive to pursue a scientific career would be based on market forces rather than political decisions. Fewer scientists would be trapped in dead end careers and held back by the altruism prevalent in academia. Third, it would derail predatory academic journals, fraudulent results and politicised science, shifting the currency of research from publications, grants and ideology to actual concrete results.
The three princes of Serendip walk among us every day. They represent the inquisitive and creative nature of humans, but they are stifled by regulations, politics and the altruism of academia. Let them roam fully free and unfettered, and we will usher in a new golden age of science unlike anything in history.
Sean Hooper speaks tonight 13 November at the Two Chairmen.