It’s a nice thought that faculty and students make their discoveries “in the lab” as a recent APLU infographic depicts.
There certainly are discoveries made in laboratory work. But discoveries are also made out collecting samples, and in work shops, and at computer workstations, and–this really eats at university administrators–not anywhere near university-controlled facilities. Discovery can arise in, say, conversation, or listening to a talk at a conference:
Here, for instance, is an account of Boyer and Cohen meeting up (from Sally Smith Hughes, Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech):
In November Cohen and Boyer arrived in Honolulu for the conference, neither knowing the details of the other’s research. As it came time for Boyer to present, Cohen listened raptly to his description of EcoRI’s properties. His mid lit up when he heard that the enzyme cut DNA molecules predictably and reproducibly into unique fragments with sticky ends. IN a flash of insight, he wondered: could one use Boyer’s enzyme to sever a plasmid precisely and use the sticky ends to attach a second DNA fragment?
In other words, the groundbreaking discovery came at a conference. The lab work set up the discovery, but the discovery that was groundbreaking wasn’t in a lab, and wasn’t even the subject of the research that was going on in the labs.
Imagine if university administrators had gotten to Cohen and Boyer first, before they had met–they may well have filed patents on the stuff in the labs, and it may have been impossible to coordinate the licensing of those patents.
In a way, it is a fairy tale that research discoveries take place “in the lab.” The lab is a place someone goes to test something. The discovery is often the reason someone goes to a lab, not the thing that someone comes back out of the lab with. Continue reading