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The quote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” has become a staple of self-help and business books.
But it is also the perfect quote to illustrate how what almost everyone else means by failure is different from what it means in science.
Scientists should embrace failing better. Failing better means looking beyond the obvious, further than what you know and what you know how to do. Failing better happens when we allow ourselves to ask questions, doubt results, and allow uncertainty.
The way of science is not to stop failing once you've succeeded. Success has to be tested rigorously and considered for what it has not revealed. It has to be used to get to the next place of our ignorance.
Many scientists say that science is about a pragmatic approach to putting pieces into a puzzle, and the more pieces you add, the more successful you are.
But this approach is driving science into a corner. We can't keep up with the exponentially expanding literature of ever narrower details. This approach is turning scientists more and more into a secret society of oddballs, tolerated because once in a while, some gadget or cure drops emerge out of the otherwise impenetrable machinery. This process is doomed to run out of steam, or bore us all to death.
The alternative to running out of steam is to fail better. Skeptics may wonder how to write a grant proposal where you promise to "fail better," or getting a job with a research strategy that lays out your program for failing better.
Yet, that is the right way to proceed. If you are reviewing a grant, you should be interested in how it will fail - usefully. Ask a candidate for a faculty position who has just presented his or her five-year research plan, what is the percentage of this that is likely to fail, otherwise it may be to simplistic. We often don't know what we don't know. The unknown will only be revealed by failures.
Failure is data. Failures lead to a fundamental change in the way we think about future experiments.
It's not just young scientists who have become failure-averse. As you move on in your career and have to obtain grant support, you naturally highlight the successes and propose experiments that will continue to produce results. The lab becomes a kind of money machine.
Although these things will get you along day to day, they are an impediment to science as it is wasteful to have everyone hunting in the same ever-shrinking territory. Now and again, we have to venture out into the darkness where the likelihood of failure is high in order to expand.
This will require the kind of revolutionary change in our perspective, comparable to a paradigm shift.
Revolutionary changes often happen faster than "organic" changes. They may seem unthinkable at first, but once the first shot is fired, change occurs rapidly. Science is ripe for a paradigmatic shift on many levels.
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