When Carl Djerassi was asked how he chose his research problem that led to the birth control pill, his answer would have been surprising to most politicians, and indeed to most people who are concerned with the funding of science. He said:

To be quite honest, at the time that we chose it, the problem was not really directly connected to birth control. … at the time (1950 – 1951) we began working on this problem, progesterone was not used for birth control, but to treat menstrual disorders and infertility. Also, and most importantly for us, it was thought to be a potential treatment for certain forms of cancer … .”

I have highlighted “at the time that we chose it” to point up a very significant fact – that most of the practical scientific, technological and medical advances that we have made have come from research that had no apparent connection to the problem at the time when it was performed.

Let me give you just three more examples. These come from a report written by Sir John Cadogan after he quizzed Fellows of the Royal Society about the relevance of theirs’ and others research.

  • Einstein’s theory of relativity might seem irrelevant, but your satellite navigation system would not work without it.
  • The development of the polymerase chain reaction that forensic scientists and others use to “amplify” samples of DNA only became possible through a series of apparently unrelated discoveries, including the isolation of a new species of bacterium from a hot spring.
  • My last example concerns the platinum-containing molecule cis-platin, which is now the basis of a series of anti-cancer drugs. It is an example that is personally relevant to me, because my mother was treated with such a drug soon after its discovery. But the molecule and its effects were only discovered during a study of the effect of electric fields on the division of bacterial cells. The experimenters happened to use platinum electrodes, and electrolysis unexpectedly generated a soluble platinum complex, which (even more unexpectedly) inhibited binary fission of the bacterium, and inhibition of binary fission is just what is needed to stop cancer cells from multiplying. But cancer was never mentioned in the original grant application, and neither were platinum compounds, since these applications were not, and could not have been, envisaged at the start. The clever bit was to pick up on the potential application after the initial discovery had been made.

The real point is that this sort of discovery is not an occasional byproduct of precious petals playing in their laboratories. THIS IS THE MAINSTREAM. As Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto said in response to the same survey:

“It is blindingly obvious that the really unexpected and unpredictable discoveries are invariably more important than those that are the result of targeted initiatives. However, my experience is that one can point out the obvious issues until one is blue in the face and no one with any influence on science funding ever takes a blind bit of notice!”

Politicians and funding bodies, PLEASE take note. THIS IS HOW SCIENCE REALLY WORKS.


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