Andrew's Angle - December 2019

Andrew Read

Nearing the end of my first year as Huck Director, I find myself pondering failure.

In a previous life, I did a lot of climbing in the New Zealand mountains. Among the climbing fraternity, well-intentioned failure was seen as the flip side of ‘no guts, no glory’. Failing was okay (so long as you stayed away from stupid). Indeed, the epic retreats, the disasters and the rescues, those became the folklore; the successes were just lines on a vitae. The folk really pushing the boundaries – the new routes, the winter routes – failed more often than they succeeded, but they changed what the rest of us did, aspired to, and even thought possible. 

Science is also about pushing boundaries. Over the last year at Huck, I’ve heard a lot of stories about success, yet I can’t think of anyone telling me of abject failures. You know, the kind of thing that if it had come off, the Nobel would be in the bag, but instead it was a blow out. With very few exceptions, I hear no tales of breathtaking high-risk/high-payoff projects. I hope those projects are out there, because humanity needs game-changing science more than ever.

Bureaucratic risk aversion works against high-risk/high pay-off. In the name of efficiency and oversight, institutions carefully guard every dollar, worry about every hypothetical lawsuit, try to make every minute count. This rapidly leads to incrementalism, no more so than at the NIH and NSF. At both agencies, standard funding decisions have become so risk averse that separate schemes for high risk work have been created.

Penn State starts the new decade with a strategic planning round. I want to think more about how we can create an environment where our researchers can take major risks and be open about it. Money is some of the answer, but I think more it is about the culture. We need to celebrate those trying high-risk/high payoff. Minimally, that means enjoying each other’s tales of failure. Perhaps we need to include failure stories in future Huck newsletters.

Nobody wants everyone to gamble everything on crazy stuff. And we should all be on the lookout for the low-risk/high payoff projects. But they are rare. More common are low-risk/low payoff projects. We often need those in our portfolios to keep the lights on, but they will never change the game. 

Just imagine a situation where everyone, from new grad students to professors to university administrators, could point to at least one high-risk initiative they took on. How many more high-payoff outcomes might emerge, and how much gloriously rich folklore would result from the failures? 

There are endless routes to the top of the mountain, but new ones cannot be recognized until someone has the courage to envision them, gear up and have a go, even when success is far from guaranteed. What can Huck do that will be a game changer if it works, and nothing more than a learning experience if it does not? 

My very best wishes for the Festive season. May your 2020 involve unsettling (intellectual) risk.

- Andrew