#195  from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 1          January 1996

Accidental Management
by J. E. Oldfield, Ph.D.

Dr. Oldfield is professor emeritus at Oregon State University, Corvallis, where he headed the Department of Animal Sciences and the Nutrition Research Institute.  He’s a Fellow of the American Society of Animal Science and the American Institute of Nutrition, and currently edits The Professional Animal Scientist.

When I started graduate school at the University of British Columbia in 1946, my major professor, A.J. Wood, lectured me on his scientific method.  “The really best way to conduct research,” he expounded, “is to hire good people and give them a free hand—put no strings on their activities whatsoever.”  “But unfortunately,” he went on, “the funds I have to pay you have some fairly tight restrictions, so here’s the general direction I want your work to take.  But I want you to keep your eyes open as you go along; often the best discoveries are made by accident.”

I’ve thought about his advice many times, since.  The idea of having a great discovery come to me by accident was fascinatingly attractive.  Beyond the fame and fortune that might accompany it, it would save a lot of time and effort—important items to a young man with many alternative ways of using them.  So I launched myself into a career of research in animal nutrition, carefully following the literature in an area relevant to my interest, which was trace element metabolism; but also absorbing whenever I could, stories about great scientists and how they had done what they had done.  I found that beneficial accidents were called serendipity, and that there were a good many examples of its contribution to knowledge and the quality of life.

The first example I remember was a very famous one.  During World War II, I had served in Italy and remember a wonderful new drug, penicillin, which greatly speeded up wound healing.  Penicillin, I found, had been discovered by accident by Alexander Fleming, a Scot working in St. Mary’s Hospital in London.  The accident occurred when Fleming left a petri dish, containing Staphylococcus culture, uncovered.  An errant mold spore fell on the dish, killing the bacteria adjacent to it, and the cause was found to be penicillin, and antibiotic produced by the mold.

My point in ploughing this admittedly old ground, is to point out that when the accident happened, Fleming was ready for it.  Such accidents are commonplace in bacteriological laboratories and usually end up in the trash.  But Fleming recalled later, “Instead of casting out the contaminated culture with appropriate language, I made some investigations.”  So, serendipity can’t do it all by itself—the accidents have to be managed.

Let me put an example from my own experience.  For years, I worked with selenium, a rare micronutrient that, in very small amounts, is a dietary essential for animals and humans.  When I read up on selenium I found it had been discovered accidentally by the Swedish chemist, Jons Jakob Berzelius in 1817.  When Berzelius was investigating worker illness in a sulfuric acid plant, he found this new element in the acid-vat slime.  The accident was that Berzelius had pretty well convinced himself in advance that the problem was exposure to arsenic.  When he found no arsenic in the ore, he was quick enough to look for other substances and identified selenium.

Administrating Serendipity

Research administrators have taken cognizance of the income-generating capacity of serendipity, and sometimes (not frequently) have sought to encourage it.  One example is the Battelle Development Corporation, with the main objective to identify practical uses for research ideas.  It has benefited in doing this by occasional emergencies of serendipity.

Battelle engineers had been asked to find uses for selenium, which was a by-product of electrolytic copper refining.  Although they knew selenium to be a photoconductor, they despaired of using it in a photocopying process they were developing.  Because it was such an efficient electrical conductor, it wouldn’t hold a charge.  But when they deposited selenium on a plate in a vacuum, they found that it would hold a charge—but only in absolute darkness.  This turned out to be a development of great significance, for the vitreous selenium produced a quantum multiplication of light, and electrophotography was born.  Serendipity stepped in again when it was incidentally discovered that the new copies could be reproduced through an existing office printer made by the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation.  After this start, the automatic office copier was developed and the name Xerox entered our vocabulary.

There are numerous other examples.  DuPont had an exploratory group in its polychemical department, whose objective was to develop chemicals relevant to the department’s interests; but in addition to studies assigned directly by supervisors, the staff was permitted to do some “bootleg” experiments, if they were done discreetly.  One such experiment resulted in the epoxide synthesis of hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) when many informed people felt the epoxides couldn’t be used in making HFPO.  HFPO was a key compound in the synthesis of plastics because it had chemical stability combined with melt-fabrication characteristics.  Here, a chance had found a prepared mind, courageous enough to attempt the “impossible,” and the result was creation of products of great commercial significance.  Reminiscing recently (Chemtech, 25: 42, 1995) on the mechanics of these events, H. D. Eleuterio assembled a “formula for creativity” including the traits of tolerance of ambiguity, persistence (for perhaps better, resilience), problem formation, knowledge, communication, and chance.

Certainly these are characteristics that can be cultivated.  Such organizations as Battelle and DuPont have found it profitable to do so, but they have no proprietary hold on the process: it can be done anywhere.  It takes some strength of administrative character, to tolerate ambiguity and run the risk of being led on an expensive wild-goose chase.  But as DuPont’s group showed, it may be well worthwhile.  Eleuterio cites Lewis Carroll’s Alice who declared, “One can’t believe the impossible things,” only to be put down by the Queen, who observed, “You haven’t had much practice.  Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Some research administrators might give this a try.

A Career of Enjoying Serendipity

As I look back over my career and the impact of my mentor’s teaching on it, I conclude that his advice was sound: you have to follow an organized path, but you should watch for promising turn-offs as you do.  In other words, don’t shy from accidents when they occur, but be prepared to manage them.

Following this dictum has not brought me great fame, and even less fortune; but it has led to a thoroughly interesting career and it has been fun.

When we discovered that selenium deficiency caused white muscle disease, that annually killed hundreds of Oregon calves and lambs, we were investigating a possible deficiency of vitamin E and added selenium as an afterthought.  Vitamin E didn’t work and selenium did.  I still marvel that a tenth of a part per million of it added to the diet can be the difference between life and death for animals.  Things like this are the real rewards of serendipity.

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