Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Mafalda Sandrini and Kata Katz on the need for a culture of failure in academia and its productive potential for the scientific community.

An Appeal for a Culture of Failure in Academia

Mafalda Sandrini

For some years now there has been a trend amongst entrepreneurs and artists to come together to exchange stories of failure by disclosing their mistakes on a big stage and acknowledging what they lacked in insight and wisdom. This is framed as a practice of openness for the good of the many, as well as for themselves. However, if we look around for other examples of acceptance of failure, we see that the willingness to see what the unexpected can teach us is not a common practice in science. Seeing and experiencing the benefits of a culture of failure, we want to argue for the same approach in academia.

Yet, the early beginnings of western philosophy show us that the idea of our own ignorance concerning knowledge has been out there for over 2000 years. Plato’s Apology details the condemnation of Socrates, who challenged the prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi, which revealed him as the wisest man alive at that time. In his quest to refute the prophecy, Socrates came to the conclusion that he was not the wisest because he had more knowledge about the world than the others, but because he was aware of his own ignorance. Recognizing and exploring the limitations of knowledge (“I know that I know nothing” is probably Socrates most famous phrase regarding this topic) can balance academic ignorance and help to develop a creative mindset toward the recurring critique of knowledge building. As Stuart Firestein (2013) points out, we need ignorance to be able to frame thoughtful questions, questions that matter, that are interesting. And where do good questions come from? From what we don´t know, which most often is pointed out by the failings of our current knowledge. A failure culture in our academic life could create an environment, where an experimenting mind could thrive, allowing it to be creative, providing space for exploration, failure and starting over. Consequently, the current system fails the scientific community, as it can´t pass by its own ignorance. Funding systems prefer the expected outcome over explorations, and editors care more for success than for a creative mind, which prevents scientists from being experimental, which is a fundamental part of the scientific praxis. It builds an environment that is hostile to openness and exchange, and makes data, findings and theories a question of ownership. It creates and upholds structural inequalities and prefers homogeneity before heterogeneity. The lack of diversity in academic hierarchies is a crucial barrier to science and society, particularly if we consider diversity as an asset, which enables us to foster creativity. In this climate, scientists are not just frustrated in their work, but challenged psychologically, often suffering from mental health problems (Shaw & Ward, 2014; ”The mental health”, 2019). All these things could be addressed far more easily than now, if in the academic system it would be allowed to fail, failing as individuals and failing as the current system.

The Power of not Knowing

Kata Katz

According to Popper (1934) falsification is a natural part of science (We use the word science according to its German counterpart “Wissenschaft”, which is used for both natural sciences and the humanities. Therefore, we purposefully did not define “failure” in order to foster a conversation within the community, but also a personal reflection.) and embracing a culture of failure can liberate the scientific self by revealing science as a fascinating adventure. Popper was not the only theorist who stressed the necessity of a new approach to science. Feyerabend (1974) advocated for an anarchistic science, liberated from orthodox dogmas. Contemporary thinkers like Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway and Lorraine Daston promote the postmodern idea of “situated knowledge” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Haraway, 1985; Daston & Gallison, 2007): insights are bound to the carrier of knowledge, reflecting the individual’s social and economic experiences. Scientists do not simply observe and conduct experiments, but co-create by seeing, measuring, naming and manipulating knowledge. This does not mean that all truth is relative and purely socially constructed, but that objectivity is never free from the subject, and its limitations. Science is an iterative process made up of failures, each a bit more successful than the one before. However, we only hear stories of successful failures – those that eventually led to discoveries, which is a reality which stands in stark contrast with scientists’ daily life. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979) spent two years in a laboratory at the Salk Institute in San Diego California in order to anthropologically understand the social construction of scientific facts. By observing scientists in their everyday routines, the authors revealed how failure is the norm for them: they live in chaos and are unsuccessful until a certain combination provides the expected results. Even so, such successes are always provisional, as discoveries and given facts can be revised at a later time.

So how do we measure scientific progress and innovation? Feyerabend (1974) endorsed a humanitarian perception of knowledge. According to him, success in science is usually judged by uniformity in procedures, when actually there is no such thing, but only different ways to evaluate quality of research. For Feyerabend (1974), hypotheses that confirm theories do not improve knowledge, they preserve old theories not better ones, since a proven hypothesis settles a measurement, whereas a failed one represents a step towards a discovery (Firestein, 2016). Scientists fail and fail until they succeed and are expected to know something that will support the avoidance of failure. But because of the processes of iteration that distinguish the scientific processes, failure is always around the corner.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world” – Albert Einstein

As Firestein (2016) explains, scientists are expected to solve problems and to provide answers to questions. Creativity can emerge in the ability to put things together, connect the dots and solve a puzzle. What scientists actually do, (which is also what makes science so interesting and creative) is to find new problems, which come from their own failures. To do so requires a high level “of integrity and personal responsibility, a willingness to follow the data no matter how it works out, to take the result where it will go, including nowhere” (Firestein, 2016, p.65). Searching for an explanation to a question begins with curiosity, an attitude driven by talent, irrational impulses and collective interests. Afterwards, the scientist has to swim in an open sea of uncertainties, and when, after trying obvious solutions that do not work, the scientist has to consider extraordinary, unimaginable alternatives. Creativity emerges from these discrepancies, not from things one already knows. As a social process, science develops creativity through interactions and the exchange of opinions, through which ideas are (de)constructed and reconstructed. Feyerabend (1974) irreverently affirms that the necessity of being rational and not multidisciplinary prevents our opportunities to progress, whereas science requires individuals to be resilient to changes without merely following widely-accepted structures. We see building a culture of failure in academia as a necessity, as the scientific framework needs a paradigm shift to revolutionize its dominant framework and scientific culture. As Thomas Kuhn (1962) suggested in his work, shifting paradigms are a natural phenomenon in the history of science and in its performance.

Publish or Perish, or Perish by Publishing? Publication Bias and Other Systemic Failures in Academia

The lack of a culture of failure is also reflected in the way academia is organized, for example in the publication system. The main objective of scientists is the publication of papers, which summarise and communicate to the scientific community researchers’ accomplishments, and the process which produced them. However, as Latour and Woolgar asked: “how can we account for the fact that in one year, approximately, one and a half a million dollars is spent to enable twenty-five people to produce forty papers?” (1979, p.70). As rhetorical as it might sound, the author’s aim was to emphasise that papers are often never read, may be misunderstood, and even misused. The phenomenon known as publication bias represents another impairment to scientists’ integrity: studies with positive results have higher opportunities to be published than those with negative results, or than those that do not present statistically significant conclusions (Schneck, 2017). The idea that scientists have “to follow the data no matter how it works out, to take the result where it will go, including nowhere” (Firestein, 2016, p. 65) is not always accurate. If results bring you nowhere, your paper will not be published, and either publish or perish. If publications represent the way scientists communicate, wouldn’t it be more convenient to learn from each other’s failures, in order to avoid the repetition of experiments which wastes time and resources?

This brings us to the open science domain: knowing about each other’s failure would allow scientists to avoid repeating experiments that have already failed, and it would also increase the reproducibility of studies. Ultimately, would it not be more constructive to receive support and remarks on our failures than on the ideas that have already been proven to work? A more holistic approach to science would lessen the control of single actors (fund providers, journals, institutions) and foster the collective process science is supposed to be. Professionalization and quantification of knowledge based on metrics which measure one’s successful ideas deeply impedes the provision of open knowledge, as well as cooperation among scientists (Tennant, 2018). With an increased hyper-fragmentation of disciplinary domains, researchers risk to be restrained within self-referential spheres unable to provide diverse standpoints, which might have been able to bring a fresh outlook on the subject under investigation. The outcome is an increased insularity within scientific contexts, which leads to solving puzzles that are eventually irrelevant to societal problems, and to the incapacity of confronting dogmas and presenting visionary positions (Blokland, 2015).

The funding distribution for scientific research represents another systemic failure in academia: funding has become such a fierce competition that scholars have adapted to the idea of proposing safe projects, which means proposals that will surely, recalling Firestein’s words, bring somewhere (and hence proposals will be published). This implies that a majority of researchers look at similar problems, in order to comply with the general agenda, by literally wasting public fundings (Firestein, 2016).

Failing the Community: Diversity and Mental Health in Academia

The Max Plank and Helmholtz Associations, which are among the leading research institutes in Germany, conducted two surveys in 2017 to investigate mental issues in academia, job satisfaction, and career perspectives, which are among the main stressful factors affecting researchers’ well-being. Out of 4525 doctoral researchers at Max Planck Society , 49% (2218) took part in the survey, and 6% of respondents stated that they had suffered from mental health issues, with a majority of these respondents being female researchers. The fear of stigmatization and discrimination holds researchers back from sharing their conditions: 20% of respondents with mental health issues did not inform anyone about it, 36% found it challenging to address it, and 4% experienced intolerance. Out of 1399 doctoral researchers from all Helmholtz centres who took part in the survey, 35% of respondents stated that sometimes they felt unable to cope with the amount of work, since the majority of working time was allocated for research project’s non-related tasks. Consistently with Max Plank’s survey results, “57 % of female participants (very) often considered resigning from their project, compared to 41 % of male participants” (Helmotz Juniors, 2018, p. 23). The provided motivations for possibly resigning were supervision, additional reasons related to the project, and amount of work. Academic institutions and universities have been indulgent in addressing mental health issues within their working environments, contributing to the preservation of a stressful atmosphere. In his Homo Academicus, Bourdieu (1984) argues that academia’s power structure enabled domination and maintenance of a status quo, by negatively impacting knowledge’s production. Indeed: how academics slowly work and network their way up and how they stay up by reproducing the very same structures of hierarchy, domination, obedience and servility that brought them to the top. The academic career is a slow process, laden with, mostly implicit, expectations, obligations, requirements, pretended mutual admirations, and exchanged reviews, invitations, positions, titles, and other indulgences (Blokland, 2015, p. 28).

Professors themselves are overwhelmed with workload, having to teach undergraduates, supervising dissertations, preparing research proposals. However, placed at the lowest level of the hierarchy, PhDs are the most vulnerable group, compelled to compete for limited and short-term positions.

Additionally, academias hierarchical system is failing to address structural and social inequalities, for instance sexism and racism. Unfortunately, it is not surprising that the female respondents to the Max Plank survey were the ones reporting major mental health issues. In her popular Cyborg Manifesto (1985), Donna Haraway presented a sharp critique on the deficiency of diversity in science and on the application of cutting across disciplinary boundaries. Through the notion of the cyborg, a genderless and race-less philosophical entity, Haraway advances a debate on the importance of intersectionality between fields of studies, but also identities. Due to the historical dominance of western masculine perspectives in meaning construction and the history of institutional racism, there is a gender as well as racial bias in scientific work. In this regard, Mignolo (2002) talks about geopolitics of knowledge, explaining how capitalism influenced epistemology also: “western expansion was not only economic and political but also educational and intellectual (p. 63)”. Even if efforts have recently increased in order to embrace diversity and inclusion, minorities are still underrepresented within top universities’ positions (Coleman, 2005), by thus perpetuating the current hegemony. Furthermore, in Europe and North America, scholars from outside Europe or Anglosphere are rarely included in the study curricula (Nwonka, 2019).