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Epic Fails: the not so secret reality of science

ESIP Community Fellow and PhD student, Ellie Davis, reflects on the ESIP Summer Meeting.

What do you think about when you read “Epic Fail”? I think of the many new television programs showing amateur bakers competing to make the perfect 10-tiered cake in 45 minutes (and let me tell you, those are some epic fails). Perhaps you imagine tripping while carrying boxes of unstapled, unnumbered documents or traveling to a conference only to realize you left your flash drive with your presentation back at the office. Whatever we each imagine, the one failure we rarely talk about is in our research.

During the ESIP Summer Meeting, Kerstin Lehnert, Lesley Wyborn, and Erin Robinson led a sessionto get participants talking about failure in science. We have all had some failure (or maybe many failures – looking at you Python code to identify soil salinity). We also have successes (eventually, on the roughly 1 millionth iteration, that code did kind of work). However, as a scientific society, we focus all of our attention on the successes and often struggle to acknowledge and learn from the failures.

The session leaders acknowledged the awkwardness and stigma around discussing failure. We think to ourselves, “Could talking about my failures impact future funding?” or “What if people think less of me as a scientist?” These concerns are the reasons we need to work to change the dialogue around failure.

It is important to mention that talking about failure is not the same thing as finding solutions. Sometimes, whether it is because funding ran out or people moved on or the idea just simply did not work, projects fail. Period. And that is totally fine.

The difference between talking about failures versus finding solutions is perhaps best explained by an age-old conversation between parent and teenager. The teenager comes home moody and starts slamming doors or puts on angry-rock music. A parent then goes to check on the teenager and asks the dreaded question, “What’s wrong?” The teenager responds, “Nothing!” Of course, this is objectively not true, but they continue to play this game for another few minutes. At which point, the teenager grudgingly explains the horrible, life-ruining event occurred at school. Now, here is the crucial moment. Most people’s immediate reaction is to tie on their Hero Cape and rush to find a solution. As those of you who have tried this will know, this often escalates the moodiness.

Why is this the reaction? To our analytical, mission-driven brains, it seems akin to making zooplankton the PI for the next satellite launch (AKA completely insane). However, in the words of my once moody, teenage self, “I don’t want a solution! I just want to feel bad!” Now, I do not suggest that we allow ourselves to wallow in self-imposed, science-failure purgatory. If my teenage self were actually a researcher, I think she would instead say, “Talking about the solutions to failure doesn’t work unless we first accept and de-stigmatize failure itself.”

We, as a community, should first acknowledge and support the discussion of failure. In fact, it would be helpful to know when something failed, so that future scientists do not waste time on an idea that is not in the literature because it does not work. Once we accept and de-stigmatize failure, then we can more openly discuss solutions and learn from our failures.

At the end of the session, there were several key takeaways and actions. First, although we all have failures, it is how we respond to those failures that determines whether they remain failures or become learning opportunities. Second, we decided that unless we learn from failures, by discussing them as community, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes that led to them. Third, begin to acknowledge your failures, and accept others’, in one of the journals and special issues dedicated to scientific failure (though I have yet to see one for Earth Science), during presentations, or simply while speaking with other scientists. Finally, as an interesting man once said, “I don’t always fail, but when I do, I do it with confidence and the full support of the scientific community.”

More about Ellie: Eleanor “Ellie” Davis is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of South Carolina. Her research mixes remote sensing and social science to address the risks, adaptations, and barriers associated with flooding in coastal agriculture. Outside of her research, Ellie hosts open-source map-a-thons, works with a network of citizen scientists, and mentors undergraduate students. She also enjoys gardening, though this year the watermelon vines took over her entire yard. Ellie is working with the Ag & Climate Cluster.