How UVA studies the value of scientific errors

Before heading to Boar’s Head Resort for the conference, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and supported by the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the Vice President for Research, Fraser spoke with UVA Today about the benefits. of addressing the moments when things went off the rails.

Q. Most scientists make no effort to publicize their failures. So why do you encourage researchers, especially women, to be more open about times when something failed?

A. Well, some scientists are famous for denouncing their failures. For example, Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” In classic inventor fashion, his approach was to redesign the concept of failure.

Most scientists and engineers learn early that failure accompanies any attempt to understand how things work and why. The more advanced and complex the science, the more likely there will be many experiences of failure. Failure is a necessary and frequent characteristic of scientific research.

The problem is that we live in a society where failure is always seen as something negative, something that reflects poorly on us. No one wants their scientific or engineering competence questioned, so researchers might avoid talking openly about failure. It may seem that only success has a reward. Failure is often punished.

We are not asking female researchers to be more open in revealing their failures. Doing so in organizations that are averse to failure would not be good advice. Our long-term goal is to create greater opportunities at universities for STEM researchers to talk about failure as a routine aspect of scientific learning and discovery. Normalizing failure, creating more transparency about how important it is to fail and how to respond to failure is what I would encourage universities to integrate into the organizational culture.

Q. Some female scientists say they must work harder than their male counterparts to be recognized as leaders and experts. Does that make it harder for women to publicly share their failures?

A. A difficulty that STEM teachers describe is related to the phenomenon of “trying it again.” They are often expected to demonstrate their competence as engineers or scientists well beyond normal benchmarks and for much longer in their careers. In this type of work environment, where one’s own competence is always in question, it may be prudent to lead successfully and downplay failures in interactions with colleagues or supervisors.

Q. How should universities like UVA support scientists who set out to do something important but failed?

A. Organizations that do failure well invest in developing expertise in failure analysis in complex systems. Not all failures are the same and it is valuable to accumulate knowledge of different types of failures to make good decisions about next steps or solutions.

Acknowledging someone who set out to do something important and failed means not blaming or shaming, but rather focusing on what failed and why. This type of approach developed for business may need to be adapted to university research environments, but it does suggest avenues for experimentation to address failure in new and generative ways.

Q. As we saw in the pandemic, some members of the public equate scientific failure with incompetence. How could scientists better communicate that errors are part of the process?

A. When the relatively new virus emerged, it appeared that scientific experts often changed their recommendations on the best ways to protect public health and assess the virulence of COVID-19. Normally, the immediate response to a new phenomenon occurs under controlled conditions. But here scientists were out in the open actively studying and making sense of the virus, while also responding to public demand for precision and expertise.

It was easy to see this change in advice as a measure of scientific incompetence. But in many ways, it was science as usual: moving from the known to the unknown, but in unusual circumstances. Public scientific literacy should include greater communication that failure and trial and error are intrinsic parts of the scientific process.

Q. How should professors at UVA and other universities model the types of behavior to students that failing at something is not the end of the world?

A. Models are emerging in universities to show failure and resilience through failure. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, for example, organized “FAIL!” events where senior academics exposed their own mistakes, false starts and wrong turns in personal, academic and professional lives. The goal was not so much to boast about their unusual resilience, but to humanize the everyday life of failure and reflect on the emotional and cognitive paths to living with the experience of “failure” and overcoming it.

At the University of Virginia, Kenneth Ono, provost’s advisor on STEM, and Marvin Rosenblum, professor of mathematics, are hosts “Story Collider” Events to entire audiences of faculty, staff, and students. UVA faculty scientists, engineers and medical researchers share their stories of failure and, in doing so, powerfully communicate to students about the scientific process with all its uncertainties, along with breakthroughs and triumphs.

Caitlin Wylie from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences conducted fieldwork and I conducted interviews with senior female STEM professors. We found that disclosing failure improved students’ sense of belonging, that they too could persevere and achieve their goals of working in STEM fields and becoming part of the scientific community. Being open with students about failure was highly valued as a characteristic of a good teacher and mentor.