Saturday, January 02, 2016

Science is an endless sequence of paths not taken

In the turning of the year, I have been going over old records, catching up on the neglected aspects of my scientific, family, and personal life.  One of the things I've spent time doing in this process was going over the past several years of my calendar, trips, and other records as I updated the list of invited talks I've given.  Yes, it's a bit of a mindless thing to do, and rather dry on record-keeping, but walking through all those dates and records produced an interesting set of observations as a side effect for me.

Month by month, year by year, my calendar is filled with paths not taken.  Collaboration discussions that were pleasant and interesting, but ultimately went nowhere.  Pilot projects begun, carried through to a useful starting point, but then never moving forward past that first beginning. Discussions about funding, white-papers and proposals written, most never leading to a funded project.  And yet, I did not feel a failure: woven around and within this set of paths not taken were the strains and threads that have indeed succeeded, grown and prospered and become the basis for the work I now am doing.

Years previous, I certainly did feel like a failure, when I was first starting out on my own to seek funding and hadn't landed any yet.  From the time that I finished my postdoc and joined BBN, my first time to seek funding truly under my own name and not with a professor serving as my PI and responsible adult supervision, it took nearly two years to land my first funding and more than two years to land the first piece of funding with myself as a primary investigator.  Two years of talking with program managers and pitching ideas, writing white-papers and proposals, building collaborations and having them shot down.  When I got those first contracts, I totaled up all of the attempts I'd made before and counted 11 misses before the first hit.  Some of those were cheap misses---a few emails, a couple of hours of research and preparation, a day in Washington to find a missed connection---while others were quite expensive, working with several others to put many weeks of effort into a big proposal that ultimately got turned down.  My record since, I think that I would count as little better, though I hope that I have improved my efficiency in terms of cost per try, if not on number.

Every one of those misses is a path not taken, a might-have-been that usually will never be.  A new and different twist building off my core work, to connect it to a particular opportunity, a particular set of interests of a funder and a place and time in where the science stands. Complementarily, every path that is taken bends the arc of research somewhat: the main themes at the core remain the same, but different applications build infrastructure and results and expertise in different directions, exercise different relationships and strengthen different collaborations, opening up new paths that might have never been able to exist before.

In my CV, I keep a list of projects that I have been funded on.  I do not keep a list of paths not taken. But perhaps I should.  It would be fascinating to know more about the might-have-beens of other scientists as well.  If you spend time talking to a scientist, you'll often start to hear about their paths not taken, especially if you are discussing some sort of possible work together or a new proposal: "We did a little bit of that, but then we ended up going in another direction...", "We started on that, but then the project ended...", "We wrote a proposal to do that, but it wasn't funded...", "We tried that once before and it didn't work, but now I think that the technology is better..."

I don't think that we teach this aspect of the life in graduate school enough.  The myths of science speak of only the core of the research, and only in retrospect, when the moral of the tale is clear. But I think false starts and paths not taken are the true tale, an endless sequence of paths not taken: so long as you are a creative and intelligent researcher, you will generate ideas and possibilities faster than you can find time to adequately pursue and to persuade others to sufficiently support them.  It's hard to learn to not take the failures-to-launch personally, however, to not suffer heartbreak from each glorious potential you describe that never comes to pass.  And yet, of course, to succeed you must take the failures seriously, and learn from them, and build your work yet stronger on the pieces that succeed.

Science is an endless sequence of paths not taken, and survival as a scientist means learning to delight in the paths that you can take and to let go of the paths that ultimately turn out not to be available.
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