Stuart Firestein speaking at the Discovery Building during the 2015 Wisconsin Science Festival

Failure isn’t fatal: A favor to the future

In the 1995 space adventure film Apollo 13, Gene Kranz, the flight director of space shuttle missions, reaches an important conclusion.

“Failure is not an option,” he says.

Failure as a dreaded outcome is a common premise in science, catalyzed by inappropriate measures of success and immense pressures to get all the right answers published in journals as soon as possible.

In actuality, these pressures are distortions of the way science should be done—with courage and patience.

Dr. Stuart Firestein, author of “Failure: Why Science Is So Successful” and professor at Columbia University, brings attention to the virtues of courage and patience when advising young investigators on how to handle failure at the beginning of their career.

Firestein will be sharing his insights at the April 19 Morgridge Institute Postdoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Symposium, open to all of the UW–Madison community.

It may be important for researchers to remain tuned into work that is going to get the publication, but Firestein encourages scientists to also not lose sight of the research that has to be wedged open one side at a time.

“Failure is a favor to the future”

Rita Dove, poet

Undergraduate science courses tend to teach these heroic science narratives, where it seems like events just spun out sequentially—from Copernicus to Kepler to Newton and Einstein—without recognizing that there were decades in which nothing happened.

“Scientists must have the courage to take a risk and to sit with uncertainty and doubt for a period of time,” says Firestein, “with a little bit of ignorance, a lot of failure, and a certain optimism that it will work out.”

One of the great examples of this is when Watson & Crick discovered the structure of DNA. At the time, this was a big discovery, and they were quick to realize that this clearly pointed to a mechanism for heredity and evolution.

What the structure of DNA did not do is give any idea of how DNA becomes protein. There was about a ten-year period with no discoveries. Virtually everything they tried failed, until the discovery of tRNA. It took nearly a decade to figure out the central dogma: DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein.

No one ever hears about the failure to get to the next step, only about the final accomplishment.

Firestein emphasizes that it is crucial for people to realize that science is an ongoing conversation. The whole purpose of getting a result is to develop a better and more sophisticated question. This is a privilege but also a responsibility.

Today’s failures are what people work on tomorrow; and what you are working on today were certain failures of yesterday—because everything at some point is going to fail.