In November 1887, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley published a paper in the American Journal of Science entitled ‘On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Ether’. 1 The article described an experiment they had hoped would provide proof of the existence of the ether, the medium through which light was thought to travel as a wave. If the speed of light was dependent upon its direction, then it provided support for the idea that light travelled with or against the ether ‘current’. Unfortunately, the experiment provided no such proof, and would become one of the most famous ‘failed’ experiments in history. But the story doesn’t end there. Michelson and Morley’s willingness to publish their failed data laid the foundation for Einstein’s later work on special relativity, and this raises important questions about what we mean by failure and success in the scientific community, and what we do with the results of disappointing endeavours.
You may be familiar with the anecdote told about Thomas Edison during his research into a nickel‑iron battery. The exact words are disputed, but here’s the earliest known version as told by his long-time associate, Walter Mallory: “‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’”2
Failure, it would seem, is a matter of perspective. A negative result is no less valuable than a positive result, providing that they have been obtained in a reliable manner. It surely makes sense to publish negative results as much as positive results, as the impact of withholding negative results from publication are obvious – duplication of effort, wasted money, more animal testing and ill-informed research decisions. However, we have seen fewer negative results published in journals in recent years3 and the cause has been attributed to a number of factors.
For starters, journals have a preference for cutting-edge and new scientific discoveries, over and above the reporting of non-significant results.4 Accolades, funding and prestige normally go to the scientists who publish positive data, an approach that naturally discourages scientists from continuing with experiments that may not lead to breakthrough results, but may be valuable nevertheless. As Natalie Matosin et al. put it: “When time is money, and our research output is judged based on impact and citations, why waste the time? In our view, negative results are just as useful as positive findings, but, unfortunately, they do not attract the same citations.”4 While it may be laudable to publish non‑significant results, scientists are people with career aspirations and funding applications to fill out, pressures which are likely to outweigh any prior idealistic principles about the way science should be.
There are no obvious solutions, although initiatives such as New Negatives in Plant Science5 attempted to redress the balance by providing a publishing platform for negative results. Perhaps part of the solution lies in learning to honour the scientists who are willing to offer their failed experiments to the community – it is a comfort to know that Michelson received the Nobel prize in Physics in 1907 ‘for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid’.6 Perhaps we need to dispense with talking about ‘failed’ experiments entirely.
A recent Radio 4 programme7 mentioned Tata, a global conglomerate based in India, and their internal award Dare to Try, which recognises ‘sincere and audacious attempts to create a major innovation that failed to get the desired results.’8 Asking employees to acknowledge their so-called failures was a bold move. Who wants to own up to spending money and company time on an initiative that never quite made it? However, a culture change has slowly emerged, which recognises that innovation and discovery do not appear out of nowhere, but are a result of trial and error, and the resilience to continue and pursue a different path.
As you wander around Lab Innovations in November and enjoy the array of new products on offer, consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of prototypes that you will never see. And consider too the product designs that were attempted, but abandoned. Is a disastrous prototype a failure, or is it simply one of many steps towards success? If history teaches us anything, it is that failure might need a little rethinking.