Those of you who listen to NPR may be familiar with Science Friday. For those of you who aren’t, Science Friday is a regular radio/podcast program that promotes itself as “the source for entertaining and educational stories about science, technology, and other cool stuff.” Hosted by Ira Flatow, Science Friday explores a wide range of scientific topics.
In December, Ira did an interview entitled Why Science Needs Failure to Succeed. He interviewed Stuart Firestein, PhD, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences of Columbia University and author of Failure: Why Science Is So Successful, and Helen Snodgrass, AP biology teacher for the YES Prep North Forest School, about the scientific process and the fact that failure does not always mean the end, rather it is a part of the path to success.
It’s a fascinating concept. Scientific failure isn’t typically taught to students in school, rather the focus is on singularly successful results, which leaves out 90% of science. In the biopharmaceutical industry we see this all the time. In fact, failure is an integral part of the success of a drug. According to Medicine Net, about 99.98% of compounds that come out of a lab will never see the light of day as a marketed pharmaceutical product. What happens though is something pretty spectacular. As things fail or succeed we gain knowledge. We find out why something is working and learn things we never even knew should have been a question.
One example given in the interview was the discovery of the G protein receptor. It had been very difficult to find initially because the experiments in the lab continued to fail. It turns out that they had been failing because the glassware in the lab was being washed with a solution that contained aluminum fluoride, which is an activator of the receptor. This lead to the discovery that trace metals are important activators of receptors, something that had never been thought of before.
In the interview, Dr. Firestein said that “failures lead us down important paths. We have to be ready to take risks, many of which will fail, and we can’t be disappointed by these failures. We can’t be disillusioned by them. We can’t be taken off the track by them.”
Helen Snodgrass went on to say that on the whiteboard in her classroom is the quote “Failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.” In an essay she had published in the Washington Post she explains that “If I want my students to tackle some of the big questions in science (or math, or politics, or history, or anything), they need to be prepared to approach complex and challenging issues and to learn from their failures.”
When we look at the past, at science specifically, most people remember the success, but that’s only a small part of the story. Failure is an integral part of the process. Asking questions about things you don’t know, about things you don’t understand – that’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. It’s so reassuring to realize that failure doesn’t have to be the end of a story. It can be merely a stepping stone to greater understanding.