Being a scientist – 95% failure?

As a scientist I get excited when my experiments suddenly turn into discoveries. When my hypotheses are answered by yes or no. When the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fall into place and everything makes sense. That’s when I get excited. Not that it happens too often…..

Robert Weinberg, a famous cancer scientist, once said that “Science is a profession for manic-depressives. Because there are occasionally heights when you make a discovery and then 90-95% of the time, there are frustrating difficulties and nothing happens!” If this is true, why are we still working? And is it worth it?

Picture yourself walking back from the lab, late at night, shoulders low, steps slow, worrying about the experiment that did not work. I don’t know how many nights I have walked home from work after many hours in the lab, thinking that today was for nothing. Nothing worked and it was all a mess. Still I came back the next day.

Even the most successful scientists have felt this way. In 1993, more than 15 years after Professor Shuji Nakamura, started his work on the blue light-emitting diode, he finally succeeded. Many considered it too difficult to make a blue light-emitting diode. The company where Nakamura worked asked him to suspend his project, as it was consuming too much time and money. Nakamura did not give up, but continued to develop the diode on his own. Thanks to Nakamura’s persistence, we now have true white LEDs. The technology is used in applications such as car lamps and colour screens. People even say that whereas the 20th century was the age of the incandescent light bulb, the 21st is the age of the LED lights. Nakamura took his time, never gave up and at the end he made a great discovery. A discovery that even earned him the highest acknowledgment in science, the Nobel prize.

A Nobel prize will not be waiting for me if I solve the puzzle that I have been struggling with in the lab lately. We are trying to understand how cells communicate with each other through receptors at the cell surface. Recently, I started working with a, for me, new receptor. Suddenly everything was a mess. The new receptor did not respond as I thought it would, and making the necessary tools to study it simply did not work. Even the simplest experiments failed. I have been struggling for some time, but suddenly find myself on a new track. Other scientists recently published a novel method, and inspired by them, I have a new plan.

I think that we as scientists need to allow ourselves to fail, and so should our supervisors and bosses. We need to appreciate what we did, even though it did not end up as we wanted. We need to acknowledge the research projects that ultimately are put on the shelf. Everything that we do is part of a learning process which will bring us further.

If the scientific community values publication of negative results, this would help to appreciate the work done, and also help prevent other researchers from doing the same. Misconduct and cheating are serious problems in the scientific community. If we don’t accept failure, we might lead scientists to take shortcuts or even worse; invent results. This is not what science is about!

And then, one day when you suddenly discover order in the mess and it makes sense, let’s appreciate those moments and celebrate.

Even though, according to Weinberg, as little as 5-10% of our experimental research gives us answers that can be published or used directly, we would not reach the same conclusions without the 95% of failed experiments. I would not even call them failed experiments, but rather steps on the way, painful to take, but most of them necessary.

Good luck with failed experiments - remember that they are also important!

By Ellen M. Haugsten
Published Aug. 7, 2018 3:26 PM - Last modified Aug. 7, 2018 3:26 PM

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