Don’t get me wrong, just being lucky won’t make you a great scientist, but I think many great scientists had critical moments of luck. Now, we all have luck at some point in our life (I think), but sometimes it comes at a crucial moment and importantly, you manage to make the most out of it. A lot of times those “luckier” people in our circle are those who have the ability to use those moments to their advantage better than the rest of us. And of course some people just get more of those lucky chances just by chance!
Sometimes luck may be in disguise. For example, if you were studying lizards on Caribbean islands and your work was disrupted by a hurricane, that does not sound like luck, but you could realize that event opened an opportunity to study evolution in unanticipated and exciting ways. Certainly you may be thinking this is not luck, but instead highlights the ability of these researchers to seize an opportunity and persevere. You are right, but still even if you are ready to seize it, you need a bit of luck to get the opportunity itself. I mean, not everyone gets a devastating hurricane in their study site, right?
Luck can also help you get published and funded. When you submit a proposal or manuscript a small group of experts is in charge of reviewing and judging it. I am taking about 2-5 people generally, clearly that is not a representative sample of the population of scientists, so if you get lucky those people would like what you wrote or are proposing. If your manuscript or proposal is crap then luck won’t help you (although there is some work out that that makes me wonder), but if you have a good idea/study, then luck about who reviews it can make a huge difference.
Another component of luck in grants and job applications is about who else is submitting or applying. If there is money to fund ten projects, being number ten or eleven in the ranking makes all the difference. So lucky could mean you did not happen to submit at the same time as the ten most brilliant and inspired people in the field. Same point for the job. Of course, you may have realized already that one can play with these odds a bit, in the sense that you can apply for jobs and grants for which you think you are among those top submissions and tailor applications adequately. Great scientists have the ability to honestly judge their “worth” and identify the opportunities most suitable for them.
And well, they also have a bit of pure luck here and there.
NOTE: unfortunately sometimes those luckier people and scientists are luckier based on their gender, skin color or social background, that is not luck, but an injustice we all need to fight.