Open for Serendipity

WHEN Australia’s Chief Scientist says science and scientists are important to the economy, what comes to mind?

It might be microscopes or a white lab coat. It might be more difficult to picture science beyond the stereotype. Science can sometimes feel like a specialist set of skills, understood by a few in isolation from other thinking.

The fact is, science shouldn’t sit apart from life, and the best science includes a wide range of perspectives. It is science that works across discipline areas, such as physics and biology to develop innovative medical devices. It means discussions with scientists who have opposing views or are willing to test assumptions and findings.

Beyond its intellectual core, the best science is more welcoming to a diverse range of people and their different perspectives.

Many recent schemes to encourage women into STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are tokenistic and fall short of systemic change. Women don’t need to be enticed into science with campaigns featuring lipsticks and hairdryers or by suggesting they research stereotypically female issues. They are as naturally curious and capable as anyone else.

However, a culture that privileges one way of thinking acts to exclude others. We see large drop-off rates of women throughout science learning and careers for this very reason. This is not just problematic for gender equality, but also for family, age and cultural factors as we know diversity actually produces better outcomes for science.

Diversity creates novelty and prepares us for fortunate accidents.

Strategist Jo Close of Research Innovations recently asked research leaders one question.

“What does it take to be a Nobel prize winner?”

Nobel prizes are not awarded for stepping through a process of incremental innovation. Winners are worthy because they’ve done something different. More often than not, they’ve taken a leap towards a risky idea, or connected dots no one else could see.

Photo: Dale LaFollette, Flickr

Close’s question inspired those leaders to talk to people outside their discipline areas, or to try something different. To bump their ideas against things that don’t seem related and ask “how might these things fit together?”

This reference to Nobel Prizes reminds me of an article I read recently on How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity. Collecting diverse threads from different sources and perspectives allows us to make new connections, critical for learning and innovation.

For scientists, serendipity may arise from talking with colleagues in other disciplines, engaging with the public, or reading unrelated magazines.

As students return to school, fostering serendipity is the freedom to take what is learnt in the lab to the art room or the gymnasium, and to also bring these experiences back to their study of science, technology, engineering and maths or STEM. Not necessarily immediately, but by keeping a mind open to the possibilities.

For the rest of us, it might mean reading more widely, diving into new experiences and having discussions with people that are not like us. It should also mean nurturing an ongoing interest in science or mathematics, so that we leave ourselves to unexpected connections. Pick up a high school maths revision book instead of a crossword. Google the habits of the annoying bird that chirps outside your window before dawn. Say “I wonder why?” every day.

And wait. So that somewhere down the track you realise you can connect ideas in ways you’ve never seen.

As Director, I want the new Science, Creativity and Education Studio at the University of South Australia to promote both science and serendipity. And ultimately excite a broader interest in STEM.

If we are to encourage people to persist with learning STEM for longer in high school, on to university and throughout life, then it’s these unexpected connections with science that will continue to produce the greatest rewards.

Originally drafted as news opinion piece, January 2016