Can we engineer ourselves to be lucky scientists?

Good fortune is tricky to plan for, but researchers might be able to encourage it to come their way.
Andy Tay is a postdoctoral scholar studying nanoscience in the Department of Material Sciences and Engineering at Stanford University in California.

Search for this author in:

Credit: Filo/Getty

At an undergraduate-scholarship interview seven years ago, I told the selection committee that I wanted to be a lucky scientist. They laughed — I suspect at my naive over-emphasis of the role of luck in science. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the scholarship and was told to reapply after getting more ‘rigorous’ experience as a researcher.

Growing up in Singapore, I remember reciting the country’s national pledge at school every day. The pledge emphasizes the value of meritocracy. This was a key part of my Singaporean upbringing and encouraged a belief that luck played little part in my — or anyone else’s — achievements. A focus on diligence caused success, and losing sight of it encouraged failure.

To be successful in my second scholarship application, I did what I was trained to do — joined a lab and avoided any mention of luck in science in the interview. I was offered the scholarship. Since then, the idea of meritocracy has become even more strongly ingrained in me.

Nevertheless, after spending more time in science, I am increasingly realizing that accomplishments are influenced by all sorts of circumstances, and for most we can claim no credit. This is where luck comes in. In schools and the mainstream media, for example, major scientific breakthroughs are often popularized as lucky accidents, with crucial advances in medicine or physics caused by fungal contamination or an apple falling on a head.

Google ‘luck in science’ and you might be surprised to find a number of articles describing the importance of luck in building a successful scientific career.

The question is, can we engineer it? Author Coleman Cox once said, “I am a great believer in luck; I find the harder I work, the more of it I have.” Although we would all like to be blessed with regular good fortune — like Domino in the film Deadpool 2 or Harry Potter after taking the potion Felix Felicis — most of us are simply not that lucky. But, with good career planning and a proactive attitude, we can prepare ourselves to make the best use of a lucky break.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

During my postdoctoral training, I found that an experimental procedure I had spent months developing did not lead to any significant results. I moved on to another project, but the experiment was still in the back of my mind when, three weeks later, online, I came across a researcher working on a problem similar to mine back home in Singapore. After reading some of her papers, I rejigged my experiment. This time, it was a success.

One could argue that it was lucky to have found the papers in the first place. More importantly, despite my lack of results, I did not disregard my experiment. If I had just forgotten it and moved on, I wouldn’t have ended up with a novel piece of data, with the potential to have a modest impact in my field. My data aren’t about to change the world, but had Alexander Fleming thrown away his ruined bacterial cultures without paying attention to the fungus that had killed them, or if Isaac Newton had shrugged off his bump from the falling apple, someone else might have got there first.

Make sure you have exhausted all possible options before giving up on an experiment. If you really believe in the idea, keep an eye on the literature to stay abreast of new developments that might help you get lucky in the future.

If an opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door

An important piece of advice is to put yourself out there and be proactive to engineer your own luck. When I came across an article reporting the expansion of the biology preprint server bioRxiv while I was looking for science volunteering opportunities, I decided to e-mail the director to see whether they needed help. I was told that full-time staff were preferred, but I still sent in my CV and indicated my interest. Surprise! Three months later, I got an e-mail asking if I was interested in freelance manuscript screening.

Yes, I fortuitously came across the article (and was lucky to be remembered), but I had to create the possibility of being contacted in the first place. By following up on opportunities, you might get lucky and learn some really valuable skills. If the worse that can happen is rejection, why not go for it? The famous saying ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ is applicable to science, so get asking.

What can the lucky few do to help the rest of us?

As much as we would like to believe that all our achievements arise from diligence and pure talent, luck in science does have to be acknowledged.

I feel that lucky scientists have a role in helping to overcome institutional biases and obstacles. Colleagues can promote information sharing by archiving literature and placing resources or protocols in repositories. That makes it easier for the next generation of scientists to try their luck with difficult experiments. Those who wish to contribute more to the global scientific community could think about forming committees to advocate for and celebrate diversity in science, whether in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or other factors. By using all the resources of the research community, scientists can be best prepared to serve luck once it arrives. As advised in the 2008 book Justice by philosopher Michael Sandel:

“Don’t handicap the best runners; let them run and do their best. Simply acknowledge in advance that the winnings don’t belong to them alone, but should be shared with those who lack similar gifts.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06777-4

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.