The failure to talk about failures

"Failure is not an option".  That phrase has turned into a dogma amongst conservation scientists and practitioners.  Thou shalt not fail.  Because if you fail, you're seen as a failure, and as such, your funding will be cut, your job will be on the line, you'll lose all your friends, your partner will leave you, and your life  will suck forever.  Or that's at least how it appears failure is seen in this industry.

But how do we ever learn how to do things?  We try, we fail, we try again, we fail again, we learn, we see how other people do it, they fail, we try again, and maybe we succeed, and we show other people how to do it.  But more importantly, we show other people how not to do it; how not to waste your time, money and valuable resources on doing what we already tried and realised didn't work.

Trial and error.  What a fabulous way of learning.

It would be strange for a child to automatically know how to build a Lego house, or tie a shoelace, or ride a bike.  We do not chastise them for it because it's all part of the learning process.  But we can advise them on how to ride a bike and how not to ride a bike because we probably fell off a few times too before getting it.

But we as scientists do not like to talk about how we've failed, or how it took us 20 goes before we got it right.  We only write the journal article after we've figured out a formula to create success.  We're worried that if we admit failure that the competitive funding that we've fought for will dry up, and as such, we hide the truth.  But by doing that, we allow others to make the same mistakes we have because we did not stand up and admit when things went wrong.

If you read any NGO newsletter, you will almost certainly always read about how things have been going wonderfully for them in the field and that your hard-earned donor money is really being put to good use.  It won't ever say "it took us 8 goes to figure out how to place camera traps in the right spots" or "we first of all tried 14 different radio collars until we found the right ones that worked".  This leads us to believe that everything is going just as planned and our donor money was well spent.

But I know from experience of working at NGOs that many things go wrong in the field, and yet these are never spoken about.  Projects continually fail and yet are spoken about at fundraising dinners as being successes.  Some are even so bold as to suggest that others should follow their lead in copying their "successful" projects, despite the fact that they've never achieved what they expected to.

I'm not blaming NGOs for being dishonest, because I know how fierce the competition is out there for funding and recognition.  Large donors are just as much part of the problem, as they want to see positive results within 1 year, which usually isn't possible.  So NGOs fabricate the truth and admit only partial facts to keep the funders happy.  Of course, the lack of conversation about failures extends to the academic world too.

Is it time to start frank discussions with funding agencies to make them understand that a partial success after 10 failures might not be a bad thing, but is just our way of figuring things out?  Should we start publishing failures in journals?  One journal that goes against the grain is Restoration Ecology, which has a pioneering section on just this.  Should other journals take a leaf out of their book?  Because, after all, we're all in this together and we need to start helping each other out a little more.  And remember, a failure isn't set in stone; it is part of the process in succeeding.


  1. Hi, Niki, nice to meet you. Got here from a link in SAC's newsletter, and just wanted to share with you how strongly I also feel about this. Since I started working with communities and having my own failures, I have tried to find written records of how people have dealt with similar obstacles as the ones I have faced. I get really annoyed as I keep bumping into moving pictures and stories showing how everything went perfectly well. Requirements of funding agencies are indeed an issue, as you nicely put it. The theme for my PhD thesis arose from an unrest related to those issues. Thanks for this resonating post!


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