SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Serendipity in Research and Innovation

Research often leads to unexpected, yet extremely valuable outcomes, but if the outcomes of research are impossible to predict, then surely the research itself is difficult (perhaps even impossible) to manage or direct towards specific social ends?

Using a prestigious €1.4m starting grant from the European Research Council, SPRU will build a new research team for a 5-year interdisciplinary project. Titled ‘Serendipity in Research and Innovation’ (SIRI), the project will be led by Dr Ohid Yaqub and will focus on the desirability and feasibility of targeting research and exploring the idea of ‘serendipity’ in research.

If uncertainty means research cannot be micro-managed, the pertinent issue becomes: can science be better managed in ways that enhance its social, political and economic value? Research may be uncertain, but it’s not random, and we know that industrial research and development managers fund research in areas where they expect returns, organising research to maximise its impact. With public policy, the scenario is slightly different, but there is not yet a body of evidence to draw on to support policy making.

ERC newsletter - Serendipity cover imageThe notion of serendipity has long been a central idea in the theory and practice of science policy, but there has been little research on its relative importance, and there is little evidence on its frequency, magnitude and factors. This new project will investigate whether science can be better managed in ways that enhance its social, political and economic value.

Details of Dr Yaqub's work have been showcased in the ERC Autumn 2017 ideas newsletter, which profiled his Serendipity project on its front page. In its Editorial, Dr Jose Labastida (Head of the ERC Scientific Management Department) writes:

"The same forces that led to the invention of the very useful kitchen appliance or to the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, chance and a little luck, can also strike ERC grantees in their daily work. This issue of the newsletter is dedicated to the serendipitous results of blue sky research, as we will dive into some ERC grantees’ unplanned discoveries... Dr Ohid Yaqub focuses on the actual mechanisms of serendipity to try to harness its potential. The ERC is certainly creating fertile ground for serendipity to occur."


The project will:

  • Study biomedical research and its role in innovations such as new drugs, devices and vaccines
  • Undertake a mix of fundamental basic research on the nature of serendipity and its measurement, history and influence on research policy, together with applied policy-focused research on issues of direct relevance to government policy makers, medical charities and industrial R&D managers
  • Deploy mixed quantitative and qualitative methods to generate large scale evidence as well detailed cases studies
  • Focus on developing theory and implications to inform future policy on research and innovation.

Partners and Links

Dr Yaqub will be working with Dr Ismael Rafols (SPRU / INGENIO, Valencia) and Bhaven Sampat (Columbia, USA), and supported by an Advisory Council of Prof Jo Chataway (SPRU), Prof Ben Martin (SPRU), Richard Nelson (Columbia, USA), and Jonathan Adams (KCL and Digital Science).

Dr Yaqub said:

“I’m delighted to have been awarded such an amazing opportunity by the ERC to build a new team at SPRU and work on the Serendipity in Research and Innovation project over 5 years. The award is the culmination of recent scoping work, studies on vaccine innovation (for example here) and a long running stream of research by others at SPRU on biomedical research policy (for example here). I think the work will be important for both theory and policy, and I also think it might be quite fun too.”

The project is due to start on 1 June 2018 and will be recruiting three full time 4-year positions (two PhD studentships and a Research Fellow). Further details on these positions will follow. In the meantime, Dr Ohid Yaqub welcomes enquiries from social scientists interested in the topic of this project, and natural scientists interested more generally in innovation studies and research.