William A. Nugent, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Cambridge, USA, observed that periodically areas of research become extremely popular in a short period of time. When a research area “goes viral”, typically goes hand in hand with changes in “conventional wisdom”, or those underlying assumptions that color our thinking and influence the choice of experiments we are willing to undertake.
He proves on ten pieces of conventional wisdom in organic synthesis that were widely accepted in 1976, the year he began his career in chemistry at DuPont Central Research, that in retrospect, the literature often contains earlier hints that the original judgment was not correct. He refers to these antecedents as “Black Swan events”. The picture below shows research on homogeneous gold catalysis “going viral”.
In all cases, the authors of the breakthrough papers were aware of and indeed cited the antecedent publications, but others have either not seen them or tried to rationalize and explain away results that run contrary to accepted chemical beliefs.
William Nugent recommends to look out for and to become aware of deficiencies in existing technologies, innovative solutions, research trends, and results from entirely different fields that could potentially impact own interests. This requires to systematically read current publications instead of using search engines to address specific research problems.
In addition, he thinks that industry must find additional ways to support chemical research in the universities to overcome own shortcomings in research.
- “Black Swan Events” in Organic Synthesis,
William A. Nugent,
Angew. Chem. Int Ed. 2012.