Failure: why science is so successful

Today, Chemistry World have published the review of what appears to be a very interesting book that will no doubt interest all chemistry lovers – Failure: why science is so successful.

In his book, Stuart Firestein discusses that half of science is failed experiments and wrong hypotheses, and this is usually glossed over or forgotten completely.

We should not only accept the failures in our work, but appreciate and relish them – a negative result is still a result, and one which inevitably teaches us something and allows us to progress closer to the correct answer.

As a PhD student, I’ve encountered many a negative or unexpected result, and I agree that it would be a boost not only to researchers’ morale, but also the knowledge of our field, if failures were embraced and shared. How else can we learn from our mistakes and move on to bigger and better things?

We’re often told to ignore our failures, or even to hide them, and continue searching for the big break that’ll make our careers. However, this doesn’t help the field move forward, and it only serves to demoralise and demotivate students and Post-Docs whose hard work is being pushed aside and forgotten. I agree with Stuart that failure should be taken note of, and used in a positive way to benefit science and ourselves.

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Tidbit: A-Level Results Day – Science is on the up!

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It’s the day thousands of teenagers have been waiting for – A-level results day.

Two years of hard work and exam pressure have culminated in this moment, and for those lucky students who get the grades they need, it marks the acceptance into the university and the start of their future.

The rise in tuition fees to £9000 a year doesn’t seem to have put many people off, as UCAS reports that 385,910 students had been accepted into their top choice university as of midnight last night – up on 9% from last year.

The good news for us chemists is that the proportion of students doing A-levels in maths and science has risen, with Chemistry being up 5%, Physics 3% and Maths by just under 3%. It seems that students are seeing the value in science subjects, and hopefully this will lead to an influx of high-quality undergraduate students taking science degrees this year.

This trend can also be seen indirectly by the rise in entry requirements for degrees in chemistry. When I applied for my MSci in chemistry in 2007 (wow, has it been that long?), the requirements were in the ballpark of ABB-BBB. I personally know several students who were accepted on results day with lower grades than that. The fact is, although chemistry is a difficult and academically rigorous subject, it wasn’t as popular as many others, such as biology, psychology and history, and so lower entry requirements were used to lure in potential undergraduate students.

Nowadays, however, I can browse the websites of universities such as Nottingham, York, Leeds and Sheffield, and see requirements of AAA-AAB. This might seem trivial to the eye, but anyone who has gone through the stress of A-level exams must know how easy it is to slip below a grade boundary and miss your grade target by a matter of a few points. One can only assume that this reflects an increase in the popularity of our beloved chemistry, and so the bar is being raised higher and higher to ensure that only the top applicants make it through.

This can only be a good thing for the chemical sciences, as it means that our universities are being filled with higher quality students than ever before. With high-achievers being drawn into chemistry, we can expect academia and industry to attract a wave of intelligent and skilled chemists in the upcoming years. In a subject area that needs constant attention and thought to remain at the cutting edge, this is exactly what we want to see.

The raise in tuition fees has led to students looking for degrees which will offer them interest, excitement, good career prospects and value for money, and it’s great to see that these teenagers are choosing science.

As they say, children are our future, and the future of chemistry looks bright!

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