On Failure

By Dr Robyne Calvert, The British Academy Early Career Researcher Network (Scotland Hub) Project Officer

The Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art, 26 February 2020, 13:24pm. Photo by Robyne Calvert.

Like many mid-career researchers, I’ve had my share of failure. In fact, one might even suppose that I’ve somehow learned to cope well with failure, given I’ve made it to mid-career. But what I am coming to realise is that simply overcoming failure isn’t really the aspiration. Embracing failure as an inevitable part of academic life is a much wiser, and more achievable, goal.

Recently, a few of us in the Research Services team attended a webinar organised by the UK Research Integrity Office* entitled ‘Research Culture: Environments and Accountability’. All the speakers were fascinating, and the highly recommended talks can be found on the UKRIO YouTube channel.

A comment that had particular resonance for me came from Professor Maria Delgado, Vice Principal (Research and Knowledge Exchange) of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She spoke of their successes in creating an accountable research environment, and of the importance of recognising the diversity in the UK research ecology, rather than adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In adopting the principles of research integrity embedded in The Concordat to Support Research Integrity she observed in her presentation that research is slow, it takes time, and crucially, sometimes it fails:

I think research shouldn’t be about quantity. It’s important to shift the discourse to an understanding that sometimes research experiments fail. Arguments don’t come together the way we may wish; we get things wrong, and we learn from this. And we share the lessons learned with others. And acknowledging those failures and dealing with those failures has to be part of a healthy research culture.

Hearing Professor Delgado speak so passionately about failure spoke to me on a deep level. In my own research career, I had the privilege and misfortune of working on one of the greatest failed projects in Glasgow’s recent memory: the reconstruction of the Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art, following a significant fire in 2014.

My involvement was as a researcher and research developer, and I had the great joy of working alongside the design team to rebuild Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s ‘masterwork’ – until June 2018, when a second fire destroyed the building. The project was near completion, and I was also nearing completion of a new biography of the building, to be published alongside its grand re-opening in 2019.

The disruption of my own project was nothing to the loss of the building itself, and the displacement the event caused to those who lived and worked in Garnethill. My work felt insignificant in comparison, and suddenly aimless. Thankfully, colleagues assured me that my book was now more important than ever, but completing the text seemed an unsurmountable and futile task in the aftermath. What was meant to be a celebration seemed to turn into a eulogy every time I tried to write. I set it aside to process the grief of this event.

The great failure of the Mackintosh restoration project necessitated my research to become slow. The pandemic made it even slower. Time gave me the perspective to be able to write about the failure of the project, to incorporate it as another chapter in the history of this great building. And – I hope – it has made it a better narrative, as I embraced my own failings as a biased, emotive researcher. I couldn’t pretend there was distance between myself and the building; and actually, the impact that it had on its users was precisely what made it powerful – so why try to be dispassionate about it?

Failure and time enabled a whole new approach and tone to my writing – and with unflagging support from my publisher, the book will be out 2024 – 10 years on from the first fire (itself the consequence of a series of failures).

We know we can and should learn from failure. But can we embrace and accept it as part of the process? At whatever stage our career, we have experienced multiple disappointments: not getting the interview, not getting the job, not getting the grant, not getting the award, not getting the promotion, not getting the recognition… and somehow all these no’s so often overshadow the yes’s. How can we not let failure drag us down and burn us out?

As defined in The Researcher Development Concordat, ‘Research culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, incentives, attitudes and norms of a research community. It determines the way that research is conducted and communicated and can influence researchers’ career paths and mental wellbeing.’ Learning how to not only accept but embrace failure can surely only help both our career paths, and our mental wellbeing.

Because of my own experience with failure (and the aforementioned disaster is not nearly the only one I have been party to), I am oddly excited to see how we might find better ways to include it as part of our research culture in Scotland. I hope to develop some opportunities to think about this in my role in as The British Academy Early Career Researcher Network (Scotland Hub) Project Officer (I usually have to take a deep breath before saying that aloud – we’ll use BAECRN going forward). In fact, at our network launch event last October, several attending ECRs suggested that ‘learning from failure’ was an area they would like to further develop.

Happily, the BAECRN Scotland has kicked off with great success: we’ve just awarded over £37,000 to 12 collaborative research projects in the network, representing 39 researchers across Scotland, including independent scholars. I have to say, giving away a pile of money was a delightful way to start a new job!

However, 40 applications, representing just over 100 researchers, were unsuccessful. This may feel like failure to some of them, but I hope to turn this into an opportunity to rethink this notion. We have offered an opportunity for feedback, and support where possible to seek funding through other BA schemes. I am also planning a future ‘reverse engineered’ workshop with the Carnegie Trust that looks at grant reviewing as a means to become a better grant writer. Because so often, it isn’t the ideas that are failing, but the way they are articulated that falls short. I think we have a lot of great work we can do, drawing on the experience and fresh ideas of this group. If you are a researcher in the Arts & Humanities or Social Sciences, and are within 10 years of receiving your PhD, please do join the network and get involved.

I’ve noticed that every time I have written fail, or failing, or failed in this post, I cringe a little inside. Failure is negative, and we are conditioned to shy away from its use. But I want to accept – and help others accept – failure as merely another bumpy step in the road to achievement. And perhaps even a necessary and highly useful one. I’ve failed before; I will fail again. In the immortal words of the Proclaimers…

Nope, I can’t do it. But you know what I mean.

* In case you didn’t know, UKRIO regularly holds free webinars, and the past ones are also available on their YouTube channel.

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