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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Is risk-averse fear of failure the biggest problem facing science?

Fear of failure I was more than a little surprised (but gratified) at the response to yesterday's post Why are scientists so dull? When I wrote it, I didn't consider it any more than reportage of a paper I'd stumbled across on PubMed, but the tweetage throughout the day made me think more about the subject.

On Saturday, I spent most of the day sitting in the Faraday Lecture Theatre of the Royal Institution at Solo09. Even then I was thinking about how much scientific careers had changed since the Royal Institution came into existence, but yesterday's comments made me think about this again.

When I was trained as a post-doc, my big boss told me always to have one banker project and (at least) one punt into left field. From where I sit right now, I can't see much blue skies thinking going on. Why not? Well the chances of getting "speculative research" funded are so slim that it's not worth investing the time in grant applications you haven't already got all the "supporting data" for. Hypothesis-driven research? Don't make me laugh. How is it hypothesis-driven if the penalty for "failure" is so high?

YMMV. Let's hope it does, or we're really in the sh*t.