Embrace failure, reject losers

A while back I had lunch with fellow blogger (and Twitterer) Frank Gannon from Science Foundation Ireland. Another state body working to reach out to people that mouth off a bit too much perhaps… :) We talked about SFI, innovation, R&D, demarcation and all the rest. I pointed out what I knew about the organisation from media coverage and it seemed that all their time in the press was justifying the money they spent. SFI gets a regular kicking by all quarters for what they do. Under the 2000-2005 National Development Plan SFI was responsible for disbursing €650M on ICT and Biotechnology. Some say they “blow” money on R&D (some amazing figures on spend) while others point out that R&D is not just about spitting out a new iPhone at the end of it all but it’s all the other industries influenced by the spend.

R&D is always going to be expensive as it is training and upskilling industries not one company. My view on R&D and innovation is that you can’t as a country and an industry get good and then become the best without laying the foundations. Successful companies form out of companies who form out of other companies. Many of the successes in the Valley were formed by those who were guided and influenced by colleges who built up massive knowledge from trying every variation of something out. Edison getting the lighbulb right spent thousands of hours on the problem trying everything as an ideal filament. So if we want to be the best we have to build a whole community or (overused word) an ecosystem. Everyone around brilliant companies also have to be brilliant to work them harder. Kind of the popsport ideas in Outliers by Gladwell. Be around brilliant people and their influence can inspire and train others.

However firing money at R&D and saying “we spend X per GDP on R&D” is not enough. Beancounter measuring of innovation and R&D is bad bad bad. It’s lazy and encourages corruption. Right now the SFI do not seem to be showing us all the benefits of what they do either because there’s not a lot or because they are failing at communicating it. That mission to the moon had great PR, even today we learn about all the tech created from it.

I think a lot of this is a communications issue. The general public do not know the story of R&D and how it affects us all. It’s not the public’s fault, they’re bombarded by enough stories and messages as is. But but but … there seems to be a fear of asking those doing R&D and especially academics to show what they’ve done for the cash. When in college and off record chatting to postgrads, there seems to be an awful lot of tickboxism happening. Exaggerate, lie or fog stuff to get the next drawdown. Parents, some anyway, ask their kids what they did and learned in school today. We’re not asking those we give 100s of millions this question. The endgame in funding research should not be a yoghurt with flu fighting aspects but the researchers and their team around them now having the knowledge to be able to do this again and again and educate everyone on it. And to share and train the wider community on this. If they don’t want to do this don’t fund them with our money. It’s ok to be shy. It’s ok to be a shit communicator. It’s ok to be anti-social. On someone elses dime, not the taxpayer’s. All R&D should be transparent and the general public should have the option to question it. FOI R&D. TLAs!


Photo owned by Eljay (cc)

And failure is an option. It should be an acceptable outcome if the journey wasn’t about someone faffing about and rigging stuff in the last two weeks. I’m reminded of the various feasability studies out there that are seen by some (not all) companies as a way of extracting money out of the state and where blind eyes are turned or help is given unofficially to say the right thing while doing the other thing. Afterall some state bodies have to send money out and have to get their numbers up. It’s stupid in a way that we have a system in Ireland where if a company fails and dies we are meant to keep quiet about it and not wish the person luck on their next go at this and this actual state means that others can use this veil of silence to squander and waste money and will inevitably get away with it. Our hiding away from failure instead of embracing it allows the jokers to become professional losers right now.

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20 Responses to “Embrace failure, reject losers”

  1. TUG says:

    Yeah but what did he say?

  2. simon says:

    Research is not held in secret if you want to know what a group is doing then just go to their website and there will be a list of all their publications that they have done. Detailing the work that they have done and indeed most times the papers will also include the details of the funding they used to do it. For instance at random the publications of the last 13 years of the Plasma Data Analysis Group in UCC

    http://www.physics.ucc.ie/~pjm/pdag/rpub.html

  3. simon says:

    posted this elsewhere.
    It is a very dangerous idea in my opinion. One that would send Irish scientific research back decades. If funding was based on people’s opinions of what was needed. All funding would be on iphones and cancer research. Which might sound great but most great science has not come from investing big issues but by investigating small issues and building knowledge upon knowledge. You don’t just jump straight at a problem there are steps along the way.

    Often you don’t even know what the steps are. Often the steps come from totally different avenues. Look at Radiation treatments of cancer. None of them came from looking for cancer treatments. Would the public have supported the initial discovers that underlined it? I am not sure.

    Much of Science is not sexy. The sexy science will get the funding. Look at media coverage. Science cries out for it. Yet look at the papers and TV. Weekly Arts supplements. Why does the Times and indo not have weekly science supplements. Why is their not a science version of the View? Because the general public have little interest in it?

  4. niall larkin says:

    The problem: Root cause analysis of SFI’s communication problem

    The SFI have many success stories to point to. So why do the successes struggle to stand out and be counted? The problem is rooted in the high proportion of chronically underperforming academics carried by the universities. These chronic underperformers absorb a great deal of the SFI money and combine to constitute a huge fudge factor on the whole SFI enterprise.

    The solution: A NAMA-like plan (University ed.)

    The SFI could achieve it goals at much less expense by implementing a NAMA-like plan. The idea is simple: remove their toxic assets (in the form of chronically underperforming academics) and free them up to compete on the world stage. They did it in QUB. With great success. The cost: €37 million. The result. An astounding turnaround. Exactly the outcomes the SFI was set up to engender. Its fast, its simple, and its extremely cost effective.

  5. Markham says:

    I’d agree with Simon in some aspects of this, and Damien on others. Yes, funding should be transparent within the bounds of what is reasonable. But to expect all boffins to be excellent communicators just because they are being publicly funded is wrong.

    I’d rather a research scientist spend their time researching diligently than worrying about their comms strategy.

    Science is complicated. It is laborious and takes time, more time than we’d like. Regular people won’t understand the majority of it, and increasingly don’t want understand anything that we can’t be told in the top three results of a Google Search.

    Science funding can’t be reduced to X-Factor principles of justification, in short.

    That said, when a scientist can communicate their material succinctly and in layman’s terms, it’s a revelation. A friend of mine is a bio-engineer, a frankenscientist, and he successfully explained his work, which involves using DNA-modified bacteria as molecule factories, in layman’s terms. It was fascinating, and his communications skills mean he’ll be able to go and sell his technology successfully. (He has an internet blog and everything =D).

    But don’t expect every scientist to be like him. Scientists are, to generalise massively, a strange bunch. The female students in MIT have a saying about the boy-scientists who outnumber them 10:1.

    ‘The odds are good, but the goods are odd’.

  6. Alexia says:

    Gah.. Where to start! * puts away ray gun *

    Simon – You are missing the point. A lot of research group sites are not served well by really examining the research work and trying to make it easier to understand for the public. And the conversation on the research being done and value for money needs to be ongoing. Not just to justify the investment in grants but also to encourage kids to consider science, engineering and research as a career.

    Niall – NAMA? Do go on. Even the title of the plan has me in hives.

    Markham – scientists have to be effective communicators. Is not the undertaking of research and study a commitment to articulate work done in a thesis? To possibly present papers at conferences and to defend that work before

    Perhaps the focus of this articulation is at a different level. They are speaking to those with the prerequisite scientific language instead of science lay-people (business and public-at-large).

    However, the onus is still there! Effective communication needs not to be excellent just to convey faithfully. There doesn’t need to be a push on researchers to represent their work on all media outlets. Some are excellent at the presentations, others shine in words.

  7. SaS says:

    I think part of the reason SFI get a kicking about their money is the way in which government money is distributed and spent. Generally, a Department gets its allocation and then has to spend that allocation within the financial year in order to get at least the same amount the next year. Any underspend gets taken away from the next budget. Sometimes Departments are allowed to cost certain projects over a number of years and can ‘ringfence’ that money.

    SFI would probably be subject to similar rules, which may impact on how they distribute their money. We need a more enlightened way to give money to agencies like SFI, which would allow them to actually achieve the results they have signed up to deliver.

  8. Alexia says:

    Ugh…

    “A lot of research group sites are not served well by really examining the research work and trying to make it easier to understand for the public.”

    Should read

    ” A lot of research groups are not served well by their sites – they really should be examining the research work and trying to make it easier to understand for the public.”

    And here we are discussing communication!

  9. Markham says:

    @Alexia – I agree that they need to be able to communicate their findings successfully, however, as you then point out, this is usually to peer groups rather than the great unwashed like ourselves.

  10. It’s a good point that we need to raise the level of communication and awareness on both sides of the story. Science is afraid of public opinion so they clam up, the public are ignorant through lack of education and communication and so get angry which makes science clam up more. This makes the public angrier and so on.

    SFI don’t know all the success they have generated. You, Damien Mulley, do not know all the success you’ve influenced. It is very hard to know what a dollar influenced. You can easily end up spending more on auditing than on what you are funding. Just as we spend more on legal fees than on what the court case is trying to reclaim (that Cork family spent 8 years fighting for a few thousand euro, their legal bills reached 6 figures.)

    Working in research for the past 3 years (I worked 8 years before that in the private sector) I see that reporting, auditing and so on already gets in the way. Researchers with brains bigger than Pluto are spending 75% of their time answering “what have you done with our money” questions. By the time they’ve done the reporting they’ve got so little time left to innovate and build on their idea that they are forced back into getting more funding which has more reporting.

    But I also see that some funding money does get wasted on projects with little or no merit. Some funding ends up just maintaining jobs. Some funding ends up funding proposals for more funding.

    Other times I’ve seen a pittance launch an idea and return 10x.

    One thing I do know is nobody has guessed right consistently on any of it.

    And science is already driven by popularity. The scientists doing the work are people, they are citizens and they pay taxes. They have their bias and their pet projects. To say that we shouldn’t let the population decide on matters of science funding is elitist at best and ignorant at worst. Not understanding that the 300 researchers you work with are human beings with all the same peccadillos as the burger flipper at McDonalds and the performer on X-Factor is very dangerous. You’ll end up spending all your time on BetaMax and miss the point that you are meant to be aiming for the biggest positive impact on society.

    And the only way to impact on society is to talk and open up, to accept one and all and strive to move forward. I’m a researcher and I am a tax paying member of society who likes the odd Transformers film.

    Still, you’ll end up spending €2 trying to track down where that €1 went. The auditors and the lawyers have that game sewn up.

  11. Alexia says:

    Markham, then the issue is more an issue of researchers learning to communicate in an audience agnostic way.. If presenting to colleagues be the success criteria than researchers strive to, then that’s what they will and are doing (presently).

    I won’t be the first to say that every research project can be understood by the public – like studies of colours of toad species in the rainforest et al – but these projects are important not only for creating jobs, but also for giving us insight into the world around us. What are toads coloured that waty? Is ecology? Changing habitats?

    But if we don’t try to make talking about research and why it’s important to us, then Science unfairly gets lumped into the bucket of public spending instead of investment in the future. A negative sign on balance sheet. And this is a difficult thing to shirk.

    But I digress and all of this concentration on research is beside the point, though. The thesis of the post says that failure is a necessary by-product of creating successes. And of course, at the heart of this is the fear that putting oneself on the line with an idea – that risk – scares people. Leaving a disproportionate amount of those that try (using supports) either having the wrong sorts of ideas or being chancers.

  12. niall larkin says:

    @lexia hehe I can only recommend camomile lotion for the hives and a reduction in caffeine intake for everything else ;)

  13. Alexia says:

    Niall, I hadn’t tried my new coffee machine when I posted. But now I am glad that I have. Thanks for being concerned on my caffeine intake. :)

  14. John says:

    I’d argue that this is probably 50% a communications issue and 50% boxticking/money being squandered problem.

    Getting good stories out of the universities can be like pulling teeth at times. Many need to up their game, they need good in-house PR people.

    I’m not sure I’d advocate spending public funds on outside PR people although it does seem to be happening in places.

    And the flipside I’d say is that there is an element of money being wasted and boxticking requirements are actually hampering good research and good scientists.

  15. Ron says:

    Couldn’t agree more with Damien. I worked in the Universities and I know about the fantastic work that is going on in the research centres. I also know the achievements of these centres are the best kept secret in Ireland. For example the NCSR in DCU is the number 2 (or 3) research centre in the world in sensor research. It is not communicated.

    The most frustrating part is that all the IP and ideas developed in the universities are not being released into the economy. There still is a big disconnect between universities and business. Again communication is the issue (both parties speak a different language)

    Now is the time to release it and make it a lot easier for Irish SME to access the knowledge, ideas, innovation, IP (not the same as innovation) and connectivity of universities. I have seen what can happen (Slidepath, Phive as examples) and it is fantastic when it (sort of) works.

  16. niall larkin says:

    @lexia No probs! I was worried. Ray guns and strong coffee can be a dangerous mix. :)

  17. Another important element for R&D to communicate is that Irish tax payer money helps us to secure funding from outside of Ireland. Where I work receives significant funds from the EU and that would not be possible without SFI and Enterprise Ireland supporting us. Securing EU funds is not just about money either. It is a great way of partnering with world class R&D and small, medium and large industry in France, Germany, Israel and elsewhere. Ireland alone is too small a market to spend Euros. I wish R&D in Ireland would communicate just how large a market it gets to interact with everyday.

  18. Elaine says:

    Lots of really good points and it seems to me, in many ways, there’s no row at all here. As a journalist, I agree that the media (some media outlets more than others) are focused only on ’sexy science’. They don’t cover what you might describe as ‘routine’ output from bodies such as SFI.This is partly because most journalists have no science background and haven’t got the foggiest idea how to begin communicating with a scientist or a technical person for whom passive language and description of experiments and day-to-day research is lifeblood.
    If they try, they often get it badly wrong. Look at @bengoldacre’s stuff in the Guardian to see just how wrong.
    The meeja (and I hate to use the term, but I mean media organisations hungry for content, any content, as well as journalists under pressure to ‘fill holes’) DO get science communication badly wrong. Tabloids, broadsheets, broadcast media, websites, are all looking for the magic-bullet-cure-for-cancer stories. They’re not interested in how a group of researchers has ‘patented technology for the conversion of plastic bottles into biodegradable plastic using bacteria from soil’. (I am, but not everyone is).

    http://tinyurl.com/yzcxpt3

    The focus on the flimsy and sexy stuff is funny in one way, but desperately sad and scary in another.
    The media’s failure to understand SFI and the language of research and science is compounded by the failure of scientists and researchers to communicate their message in a ‘media friendly’ way.
    DCU’s MSc in Science Communication is one course that’s helping to address these problems. I haven’t done it and I’m not a scientist, but I’ve years of background in trying to draw out information and in trying to communicate often technical information in an understandable way. And that’s not to say I always get it right.
    But recently, I interviewed two senior scientists working for a State body. They were trying to get some coverage for an annual report outlining spend on very specific environment-related R&D programmes. They were excellent – communicated the message to me really well, gave me good case studies to get my teeth into. And guess what? Paper didn’t use the piece. Or did, but days later and only to ‘fill a hole’.
    Make any sense guys?

  19. Padraig McKeon says:

    Coming to this late but nuances aside we are all on the one page. Notwithstanding that today I am ‘outside PR help’ that has been asked to assist in some cases, I agree with John’s point that the science community in a wider sense need good in-house PR /communications people.

    But there are a lot of players on the field – state agencies, commercial interests, universities, fourth level institutes (Geary / Tyndall etc..) plus all sorts of collaborations across institutions (CSETs, DMMC) and other genuinely motivated parties (Engineers Irl etc.) The real politick is that they are all competing for that limited media space that Elaine refers, sometimes employing agencies to ‘protect’ their piece (with an eye of course to being able to justify funding)

    As much as ‘investing’ in communications capability and helping the researcheerrs to help themselves, there should also be a case for some form of communications csar around this area, with a whip (in the parliamentary meaning of the word) over al of the organisations that have a voice so that some sense of coherence is projected to the public at large.