The role of serendipity in shaping fundamental research

After much postponement, writing the final report for my NWO Veni grant (2015-2018) turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. It made me realise a couple of things — key among them the role of serendipity in shaping fundamental research.

The project was called “Towards a science of linguistic depiction”. Looking at the publications that came out of it and at imperfect indicators like citations, it’s made some useful contributions.

So did everything go according to plan? Not at all. I had to cancel fieldwork because of little ones, had to abandon some lofty plans for knowledge utilisation, and had papers variously rejected for being ‘vague’, ‘without content’ or worse.

For instance, the paper I’m most proud of was rejected twice, including by Language, where it languished 6 months in review only to get reviewer 2 call it ‘charming’ before slamming it (if you’re an ECR, it’s probably best to avoid Language: not worth the risky wait). That charming, twice-rejected paper ultimately appeared in Journal of Linguistics, where it seems to be doing pretty well, with a place in the top 10 most cited JL papers of the last 5 years and in the top 10 most downloaded in that journal in 2018.

Three happy coincidences

Back to the project. While we have better answers now to the research questions posed, and even the ‘utilisation’ goals were reached, how I got there was very different from what was originally planned, with a major role for serendipity. Three happy coincidences stand out.

First, right at the start of the project (following multiple failed attempts) me and Tessa van Leeuwen got an NWO grant to do a “Groot Nationaal Onderzoek” w/ thousands of participants: a wonderful opportunity that utterly derailed all other outreach plans I’d made. We’re now working on several papers from that project; if you read Dutch, check out this piece we wrote for Onze Taal on language, cross-modal perception and synaesthesia: “Taal als samenspel van de zintuigen” (PDF).

Second, at MPI, I had the opportunity to supervise a cool PhD project by UCL graduate Gwilym Lockwood that perfectly matched the Veni project. This is privilege kicking in: outside the Max Planck system a fully funded PhD like this would have been unlikely. It’s also luck: Gwilym turned out to be a productive, self-propelled student who knew what he wanted and found a cool data science job right after his PhD. Check out his 2017 thesis —Talking Sense— here.

Third, a pleasant and productive synergy developed with other Nijmegen VI-laureates Gerardo Ortega (Veni) and Asli Özyürek (Vici): the Iconicity Focus Group, a vibrant iconicity-focused research community in Nijmegen with lots of inspiring lectures and meetings. This culminated in an exciting co-sponsored international workshop on ‘Types of iconicity in language use, development and processing’ #IFG17, funded by our three NWO grants and supported by MPI, Donders and the Centre for Language Studies at Radboud University.

All of these things massively enhanced the project and made it possible to meet goals set in the distant past of clueless yet hopeful grant-writing. Add cool student projects, visiting scholars, and a concurrent ‘iconicity boom’ and it’s clear that success can’t really be planned.


Looking back at the project as a whole, it’s nice to be able to point to a coherent set of publications, and gratifying to see the growing impact of work on ideophones & depiction. But in the report I just submitted to NWO, I made sure to also acknowledge serendipity. Here’s the final paragraph of my report:

I am extremely grateful to NWO for the opportunity and the freedom to carry out basic research using a Veni grant. As I have noted at several points above, while the goals have been met, the project has also seen considerable changes and has benefited from unexpected synergies. My overall conclusion is that serendipity plays an important role in shaping fundamental research and its applications.

The process reminded me of what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says about the art of flying: “The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”. For that, you need to be “lucky enough to have your attention momentarily distracted at the crucial moment”. Certainly some of the most fun and serendipitous collaborations have come from me being distracted by too many new ideas at once — often when I was about to hit the ground (or a deadline). Make of that what you will.

Okay, time to wrap up. Lessons learned:

  1. Things will go different than planned, and that’s okay (be curious).
  2. Reviewer 2 doesn’t get it, and that’s okay (keep trying).
  3. It’s more fun when you do it together (collaborate).

And that’s all folks. Enjoy the holidays. Take some time off, you deserve it. So long and thanks for all the funding!

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