How the road less travelled becomes a science superhighway

Last month a small symposium took place at Burlington House in London to mark 30 years since Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley and their colleagues discovered carbon’s spherical allotrope – buckminsterfullerene. And next year, the C60 celebrations will no doubt continue as we observe 20 years since the Nobel prize was awarded for their discovery.

I was just a schoolboy back then in 1996, but I can remember my teachers appending this new member of the carbon family to our textbooks’ now incomplete listing of graphite and diamond. I have to confess that it wasn’t clear to me why this deserved special recognition; there was no confident chemical rationale attached. Without an attendant curricular learning objective to recommend it, the significance passed me by. But as the talks at the event made clear, C60 opened up a whole new scientific playground.

Fullerene also has a fascinating history, and it was a privilege to hear it told through first-hand accounts: the friendships and rivalries, the determination and despair, the opposition and vindication. After his ‘years in the wilderness’ as Kroto has often called them, while he and others worked to prove the speculative soccer-ball structure was beyond doubt, the acceptance finally came, and with it, a scientific gold rush. Where once just a handful of papers had existed, by the time the Nobel was awarded there were thousands. As one attendee recalled, ‘you could publish anything’.

But there is perhaps an irony here. As Kroto explained, when he made his discovery, he was simply following his curiosity. Yet where a pioneer ventures, prospectors follow, and capped with the cachet of a Nobel nod, C60 drew legions of scientists. Indeed, a source close to the Nobel committee confided that this is a genuine concern – their decisions can influence trends in research for generations. The growth of interest in C60 is a blip compared to the exponential increase in graphene publications. So yes, decades of research have taught us a lot about C60 and nanocarbon, but what is the opportunity cost of this investment?

We’ve often reported on how incentives in research create the conditions for abuse and misconduct, but they also promote quite legitimate behaviours that are equally damaging by inhibiting creativity and risk-taking. Curious scientists will naturally be eager to investigate a new discovery, so when funding and publishing conditions are favourable, who can blame them for choosing a risk-free meal ticket?

But then how do we encourage the sort of ranging research that tosses a few contemplative pebbles into the pond, not knowing where the ripples will find the shore? ‘Just give them some money,’ urges Kroto, ‘and if they do good work, give them some more.’ Can it really be so simple?

Next month we’ll have a new batch of laureates and we should remember that their citations are not a catalogue of next season’s scientific fashions, but recognition for questions and curiosity, originality and imagination. Some things never go out of style.