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Academics need the freedom to make their own luck

 Image: Makhbubakhon Ismatova, via Getty Images

The best research environments cultivate serendipity—and the REF should recognise that, says Matthew Flinders

What makes a world-class research environment?

Bright minds, yes; ample and sustained resources, yes; freedom to make mistakes, yes; criticality and challenge, yes; engagement across disciplines and sectors, yes; an international outlook, yes; agile and ambitious leadership, most definitely. But what else do transformative research endeavours generally possess?

The answer is luck. Or rather, they make their own luck. Or to be even more specific, they understand and nurture structured serendipity.

In the 1950s, the sociologists Robert Merton and Elinor Barber explored the links between science and serendipity, which they defined as a blend of wisdom and luck by which something is discovered not quite by accident—in contrast to pure luck, which owes nothing to one’s efforts.

World-class research environments structure serendipity by cultivating relationships and experiences that yield new perspectives and insights. The resulting breakthroughs often involve spotting links between areas of science or day-to-day life that might have gone unnoticed.

This emphasis on structured serendipity has a direct but generally overlooked or misunderstood connection with contemporary debates about research culture. It also has implications for the UK’s 2029 Research Excellence Framework—the country’s national research assessment exercise—in facilitating and delivering truly exceptional research.

The key metaphors are the ecosystem and the crucible. 

Research centres and universities work within a much larger landscape. Mobility—of people and ideas, across disciplinary, professional and organisational boundaries—was a central element of Paul Nurse’s review that led to the 2018 creation of national funding agency UK Research and Innovation. UKRI’s main contribution has been its emphasis on connectivity across the research and innovation ecosystem. 

This emphasis has defined a number of reforms and initiatives, including UKRI policy fellowships, Local Policy Innovation Partnerships, and the expectation that PhD students will undertake a placement beyond academia. There is a broader emphasis on facilitating braided, or blended, careers that move in and out of academia. 

Running through all this is a commitment to structured serendipity. Varying what, how and where you learn can transform professional networks, scientific understanding and personal confidence.

The crucible effect—bringing different elements together to forge something stronger than its parts—is a method for structuring serendipity, devised by the innovation charity Nesta and developed by the Royal Society of Edinburgh

In research, the elements are academics, professionals, artists and so on, who would not normally get the chance to meet and learn about each other’s skills. Provided with a problem to solve and space to think, the crucible effect leads not just to new ways of thinking, but to new friendships and professional relationships.

Risk implications

Investing time and energy in structuring serendipity is not risk-free. Connections might not be made, people might not get on, time and money might be wasted. Benefits may take years or decades to emerge and be diffuse rather than direct. 

All this means that, for an early career researcher on a temporary contract, varying what, how and where they learn may not be realistic. Add to this the systemic inequalities within academia, and the quest for structured serendipity might look like the preserve of a small elite free of the normal pressures of university life.

But structured serendipity can be more accessible if we realise that there are many not-quite-accidental ways to open up insights and opportunities. They range from simply reading beyond one’s sub-field, to attending events and conferences in cognate fields, through to a short-term placement or signing up to a crucible.

The good news is that the high-level decisions about REF 2029 announced last year are designed to capture a broader definition of research excellence and to reward institutions that facilitate the creative mobility of staff, knowledge and talents across the ecosystem.

The bad news, especially amid higher education’s financial crisis, is that as academia becomes increasingly pressurised and orientated towards short-term goals and financial efficiencies, time and space for open inquiry gets squeezed out.

And yet the bottom line is that any world-class research environment—any institution with a positive research culture—is likely to show at least some awareness and commitment to nurturing structured serendipity.  

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, and vice chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight