Why embrace failure? To forge steel, metal is held in flame until it glows red and becomes malleable, it’s then pulled out and hammered into shape, only to douse it in cold water and repeat the process. This brutal process is what creates steel’s superior strength. Failure is a similar process. It develops the skills, persistence and grit needed for scientific success. Through failure scientists learn how to develop alternate approaches, optimize complex experiments, and create a Plan B, or learn when to abandon a path that refuses to bear fruit.
Learning to embrace this process is important for researchers, but it’s even more critical for funding agencies and the governments that back them. This year’s Seoul Forum, an annual event held by Seoul Economic Daily, focused on basic science as an engine for long term national economic prosperity. All scientific speakers talked of patience and the importance of embracing failure. CHOO Miae, member of the National Assembly in the ruling Democratic Party, took the stage with an impassioned statement of encouragement. She urged the audience to “not be afraid to challenge and fail because this will become a precious experience and capacity for our society. Therefore, we are opening a government policy that encourages failure.”
This is a powerful and visionary statement. Naturally it will be tested because the public and political leader have an extreme aversion to the idea of wasting precious taxpayer money, which is how failure is often characterized. Can the public and national leaders understand and even embrace the patience and repeated failure required to make meaningful scientific breakthroughs, ones that may even lead to Korea’s first Nobel Prize?
One truth remains immutable, just like in startups, failure is normal and expected in science.
Will we see FailCon holding an event in Seoul one day? Only time, attitude, and policy will tell.