Why ‘Failure’ Is Good For Science

Picture this. You’ve grinding away at your lab bench or instrument workstation or computer (for those computational folks) for hours trying to come up with some usable data. You’ve spent the last few days trying new approaches to the same problem, to no avail. Maybe you’re sick with a cold. Maybe it’s late in the evening and you’re trying to get home. A notification pops up on your screen (we’re sticking with a digital scenario); you have your data – and, yet again, the experiment didn’t work or the results don’t make sense.

This scenario is universal in all fields of science. All scientists can recall a point where hope was fleeting or simply nonexistent. Similarly, all scientists struggle daily with troubleshooting their experiments and equipment to get them working in the first place.

Scientists, much of the time, bear the burden of these indelible realities of their craft in relative silence – only speaking of them in detail after their research has borne fruit. There is a lot at play that drives this.

First – Science is expensive. Expensive enough that most scientists are not funding their own research. Instead, they get their funding through grants from government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and for-profit organizations. In situations where research funding is on the line, researchers are under pressure to perform. The result is that they may not be as forthright about the lack of exciting positive results as if the atmosphere was more conducive to such communication.

Second – Science is competitive. Whether we like it or not, the practice of science that produces positive results, in one field or another, comes with a certain degree of prestige or ‘bragging rights’, and while this competition can certainly give rise to innovation, it is not without its pitfalls. For example – Jonas Salk.

Jonas Salk has gone down in the annals of scientific and public health history as the man who developed the first functional AND safe polio vaccines. Salk obviously wasn’t the only person attempting to develop a vaccine, his rival Albert Sabin was also making great strides, thus he was pressured by the weight of the prestige that would come with the vaccine’s discovery. Whether or not that pressure made his work go faster or not, we’ll never know, but I’d certainly be interested to know how quickly a vaccine could have been developed if the rival researchers could have had an open discourse about their ‘failed’ trials. It’s likely that, between the two of them, many approaches to the problem were repeated.



So what exactly is the difference between a scientific failure and a negative result?

A scientific study is conducted the formation and exploration of a hypothesis. For example, let’s say that the hypothesis of a particular drug study is that Drug X has some effect in treating a specific disease. In carrying out the study, the researchers find that Drug X has no significant effect in treating said disease. Is this a failure?

Absolutely not. This is a negative result.

Just because the result may not have been the desired result, does not mean it is a failure as there is still useful information to be gleaned from the study. Perhaps the molecular structure of the drug was not what was needed for the treatment to be successful. Perhaps the molecular structure was fine, but the method of drug delivery was lacking – rendering a potentially successful drug useless. There are so many questions that need to be addressed when negative results occur. Making negative results widely available to fellow researchers, instead of working them out on one’s own, perhaps only asking a few people for help, could potentially expedite the research process.

What does actual failure in science look like? Look to the example of Andrew Wakefield publishing his fraudulent paper on the link between the MMR vaccination and incidence of autism in children in The Lancet. More here. The failure in this being the scientific malfeasance of manipulating data to obtain a desired result as well as the nondisclosure of conflicts of interest. Wakefield received funding to look for evidence on which arguments against the use of vaccines could be based.

Nonetheless, science is an endeavor whose nature is largely trial and error (or negative results… or malfunctioning instruments) and it can be disheartening. The best case scenario is that, ultimately, the constitution of the scientist becomes a bulwark, holding fast against negative results.


Stuart Firestein did an excellent segment on the topic on NPR’s Science Friday.

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