Accepted Paper:

Do excellent researchers ever fail? Comparing academia and biotechnology companies  


Maximilian Fochler (University of Vienna)
Lisa Sigl (University of Vienna)

Paper short abstract:

In competitive excellence, is failure becoming a taboo? How does this affect research? We compare cultural ways of dealing with uncertainties in the academic life sciences and biotech companies and ask which role the chance of failure plays in epistemic, organizational and career decisions.

Paper long abstract:

In science policy, funding and academic research practice, excellence is ever more strongly defined in terms and processes of competition. For the most part, the truly excellent are those with a track record repeatedly proving their ability to outrun others. Particularly in "hot" fields, failing to secure a grant, failing to achieve significant results in an experiment, failing to publish a paper with high impact, is seen as most likely leading to career death, at least in specific sensitive phases of academic lives. As a result, failure, or even the possibility of failing, is culturally side-lined and may even have become a taboo. The consequences of this for research as an activity which by its very definition needs to deal with uncertainty are only starting to be discussed, for example in debates about missing opportunities to publish negative results or about the manipulation of research results.

In this paper, we will discuss how uncertainty and failure are defined and handled in two very different institutional contexts in the contemporary life sciences: academia and biotechnology companies. Drawing on interview data, we will analyse and compare different cultural ways of dealing with uncertainties and ask which role the possibility of failure plays in making epistemic, organizational and career-related decisions.

We explore the differing cultural roles of failure to better understand how discourses about excellence re-shape researchers' tactical decisions in research and research careers in academia, but also to address alternative ways of dealing with the inherent uncertainties of science.

Panel T020
Governing Excellent Science