Innovation in research stifled by the stigma of failure

The similarities between research and entrepreneurism are quite interesting. Having moved from research to business I find myself constantly noticing the opportunities for research to take a leaf out of the entrepreneurs playbook, to become more innovative. It turns out that I am not the only one thinking this way, Professor Mark Dodgson, Director of the Technology and Innovation Management Centre at University of Queensland Business School, mentioned a similar idea at the Bionics Institute Annual Public Lecture in Melbourne, with his speech titled Innovation in Australia: are we losing the plot?

Government spending on innovation has decreased by 20% over the last two decades leaving us behind many smaller economies.

We are now again starting to see some small change with innovation back on the agenda. The government is pushing the innovation and small business agenda and wanting research to work better with industry to develop products and to innovate. However, an interesting reason for our lack of innovation was that of the fear and stigma, specific to Australia, which is associated with failure.

“Glory lies in the attempt to reach one’s goal and not in reaching it.” Mahatma Gandhi

It’s possible that this fear of failure has been bred into our research culture.  Within academia there are high levels of stress associated with research teams, projects and programs not finding the result that was originally hypothesised. It has always been a highly feared proposition to spend years of research to find that your hypothesis, or even methodology, was incorrect, leading to the many and varied uses of statistics and data crunching in an attempt to find something positive to report. Publishing and presenting results that were not expected has long been frowned upon and only recently have we seen a shift to sharing the negative results.

The introduction of journals that publish negative or unexpected findings is long overdue. Not finding something is just as important as finding you were right. All research findings provide evidence that can be used to change research direction, to stop other researchers looking for the same thing and wasting time and resources doing a similar experiment when it is already know that it does not work. Yes we need and want to find good scientific results, but without honest and open reporting of all science endeavors then we skew the scientific literature and waste money and time.

The question remains, how can we remove the stigma associated with failure? We need greater opportunities to reward those brave enough to try something despite the outcome, face it without these types of individuals we would never have seen some of the world’s greatest inventions and success stories. As an example, if the wright brothers had given up on their dreams of flight based on the failed attempts of Samuel Pierpont Langley then they may have never been successful in discovering flight and developing the airplane.

“Innovation needs intelligence, tenacity, and courage” Frank McGuire MP Parliamentary Secretary for Medical Research

Being entrepreneurial requires a thick skin, it requires becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, you have to keep getting up each time you get knocked down, and these are just the fun parts! How can we, or should we even, distill these qualities within the researchers of the future?