The Lost Donkeys of Science

History is full of unexpected discoveries that changed the world. Despite the obvious risks, science funders should therefore allow researchers the flexibility to pursue new, exciting insights rather than just play it safe and stick to rigid research goals.

CAMBRIDGE – The biblical story of Saul finding his kingdom by chance while searching for his father’s lost donkeys offers an important lesson for scientists. Instead of defining our research objectives narrowly, we must open our minds to completely different and more exciting discoveries that may be lurking at the periphery of our field of view.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson made such an unexpected discovery in 1965, when their attempts to reduce the noise in their state-of-the-art radio antenna led them to discern the cosmic microwave background. They noticed a noise floor, which turned out to be the radiation left over from the Big Bang. This watershed discovery, which fundamentally changed our view of the universe, was made at Bell Labs – not at a premier research university.

Assembling new data is essential to scientific progress. Data play the important role of guiding scientists toward new discoveries and solutions, as well as to new puzzles that need to be solved, thereby keeping the scientific process honest and dynamic. Extended periods without new data facilitate – indeed, foster – the unrestrained growth of speculative-theory bubbles.

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