Research by Accident

Schelling, T.C. (1995). Research by Accident. IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-95-040

[thumbnail of WP-95-040.pdf]

Download (433kB) | Preview


This paper deals with a key aspect of (uncertainty in) knowledge generation: unanticipated discoveries. The first part of the paper provides an illustration of what the author terms "research by accident", defined as a central cognitive device to generate unanticipated knowledge: in R&D for a new technological alternative as substitute to an old technology, scientists and engineers are inclined to narrow their vision, being preoccupied with simply accomplishing, with the new technology, what the old technology did. As very well documented in the case of nuclear weapons, such a cognitive bias leads to a sequence of unanticipated discoveries -- a process of research by accident which will subsequently reveal properties and characteristics of the technology which were not expected initially. One lesson of this paper is the importance of basic research as a source of information that one did not know was needed when it was first decided to deploy a new technology. The challenge is to improve ways of accessing existing knowledge at any one time so as to reduce the probability of surprise.

The second part of the paper deals with situations where the scarce resource is no longer information but attention. As illustrated with the example of energy studies of the 1970s, the problem at hand deals with the efficiency of information distribution rather than generation. As pointed out by the author, it is necessary to make a difference between scientific information that exists somewhere and scientific information that is known in the right context and to the right people (the persons with the capacity to take action or to resist action) at the right time.

Item Type: Monograph (IIASA Working Paper)
Research Programs: Environmentally Compatible Energy Strategies (ECS)
Depositing User: IIASA Import
Date Deposited: 15 Jan 2016 02:06
Last Modified: 27 Aug 2021 17:15

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item