How to advance science by failure

Stewart Firestein has a provocative piece in Nautilus on the role of failing well in science:

As your career moves on and you have to obtain grant support you naturally highlight the successes and propose experiments that will continue this successful line of work with its high likelihood of producing results. The experiments in the drawer get trotted out less frequently and eventually the drawer just sticks shut. The lab becomes a kind of machine, a hopper—money in, papers out.

My hope of course is that things won’t be this way for long. It wasn’t this way in the past, and there is nothing at all about science and its proper pursuit that requires a high success rate or the likelihood of success, or the promise of any result. Indeed, in my view these things are an impediment to the best science, although I admit that they will get you along day to day. It seems to me we have simply switched the priorities. We have made the easy stuff—running experiments to fill in bits of the puzzle—the standard for judgment and relegated the creative, new ideas to that stuck drawer. But there is a cost to this. I mean a real monetary cost because it is wasteful to have everyone hunting in the same ever-shrinking territory…

How will this change? It will happen when we cease, or at least reduce, our devotion to facts and collections of them, when we decide that science education is not a memorization marathon, when we—scientists and nonscientists—recognize that science is not a body of infallible work, of immutable laws and facts. When we once again recognize that science is a dynamic and difficult process and that most of what there is to know is still unknown.


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