The history of psychopharmacological development is regularly described as having “relied on” serendipity for its progress. Here I will argue that despite the ubiquity of this claim, its substance is protean. The results of a systematic literature review of the theoretical work on serendipity, particularly as it relates to pharmaceuticals, constitute the first section of this presentation. The themes of expectation, and targets, which arise in this literature, I argue, are not clearly defined nor consistently employed. This is particularly relevant in the field of psychopharmacology in which links between physiological mechanisms and the diagnostic criteria based on symptomatology are poorly understood.
This leads to an alternative approach to understanding the term serendipity. In the second section, I present an empirical study of the use of the term serendipity, again focusing on psychopharmacology, and using literature from astronomy as a comparison point. Drawing on the work of Wittgenstein and Austin, and later Gieryn, I argue that the meaning of the term serendipity is not tied to a fixed construct (even within academia or the sciences), but rather is linked to different functions in different, specific contexts.
Stephen Scholte is about to complete a PhD at the Science Policy Research Unit of the University of Sussex, working with Ohid Yaqub and Paul Nightingale on the “Serendipity in Research and Innovation” project funded through the ERC. With a focus on serendipity in the field of psychopharmaceuticals, Stephen’s research uses mixed methods but is often focused on interrogating concepts and categorisations, and the effects of ambiguities therein. After studying a bachelor’s in psychology, with minor studies in philosophy of science, Stephen Scholte went on to a master’s degree in the history and theory of psychology, under Douwe Draaisma, at the University of Groningen.