Trust is a big word.
The whole concept of trust or being trusted is a cornerstone of civilization, and presently our society has a frightfully short supply of it. The crisis in trust has been forty years in the making and its side effects are profound and wide reaching. I’m going to talk about one of these impacts as it pertains to the conduct of science. To say that the public doesn’t trust science or scientists is an understatement even though polls would count scientists as one of the more trustworthy professions. The cost to our society is immense with greater expense, less achievement, and ultimately horrible wastes of money, lives and opportunity. All of this tends to create a viscous cycle that simply undermines trust further, and reinforces the attitudes that caused the problems in the first place.
Let us be clear, the cost of the lack of trust we have is massive. It eats away at the very fabric of society like a corrosive substance. Instead of applying trust to the conduct of activities, we demand checks and rechecks and accounting and progress reports all to provide the proof that business is being conducted in a trustworthy manner. The lack of trust itself acts to corrode the environment and lead to an even greater degree of double-checks. It is a classic death-spiral. If the flow of good faith isn’t restored, when will this end?
As we look backwards in time, the early to mid 70’s seem to be the origin of this wholesale change in society’s attitudes. Perhaps earlier during the 60’s the movement against the “establishment” laid the groundwork, with a general sense of widespread dishonesty and distortion of facts by the government in the conduct of the Vietnam War (a concomitant conflict as part of the Cold War). The bellwether event of the 70’s was the Watergate scandal on the systematic, criminal activity in the White House ending with President Nixon’s resignation. The unwinding of trust continued with the energy shock, Love Canal, Three Mile Island all etched on the National Psyche. Science looms large in each of these areas and became part of the American experience of disappointment and mistrust. People wanted accountability from their government and the science it funded. These failures were viewed as a waste and embarrassment, and the system had to be changed. So, driven by this the public and by proxy Congress demanded change. Trust in our institutions and science as one of them had been revoked.
Where does this leave use today? We have put numerous systems into place that enforce accountability. The problem is that the accountability itself is not accountable and our laws demand that we literally spend $10 to save $1. Because of all the issues with trust, I probably cost twice as much as I should to the taxpayers, and this isn’t the worst of it. The work I do isn’t daring enough, and I don’t have nearly as much freedom as I should. Ironically not enough responsibility is required of me either. This undermines the value of what I do even more. All this accountability and bean counting and progress report writing, and conduct of operations and training I do is a terrible return on investment for taxpayers. In the end, all these things are their fault for their systematic lack of trust in the system and the cost of making sure I’m not wasting money by wasting a lot of money.
Scientists are terrified of failure and do not take risks. Without the risk, much of the reward is gone. In a recent address Bill Press noted the massive return on the investment in research associated with the Human Genome Project (on the order of 200:1). This is true enough, but the government, and business can’t pick the winners that well. We have to fund a lot of research that never pans out to get one of these massive payouts. The reality is that we might have had to fund 30-100 times as much work to get the payout of the Human Genome Project. This undermines the return on investment, but if you don’t fund all the research you never get the winner. It is much like the rule of venture capital; you have to fund a lot of dogs to get that one winner. The same applies to science.
Americans seem to be convinced we can manage ourselves into a sure thing. We can’t, but no one, especially a Congressman likes to be told this simple truth. Sometimes the best things you can do is put your trust in others and simply support good work done by good people. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean the people are bad, or the work is bad, it means they weren’t lucky enough to choose the thing that wins. It isn’t fraud or incompetence either; its just bad luck.
Simply put, success, learning and achievement depends completely on failures. We must learn to accept outright failure as the glorious foundation of upon which success is built. Ironic yes, but it’s the trust. We must allow ourselves to fail in order to have the chance of success.
The people who win Nobel prizes are not always the best; they are just the luckiest. Most of them are really good scientists, but lots of equally good or better scientists never get the fame, mostly because they weren’t lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. The problem is that won’t do that Nobel Prize-Winning work without risk and without funding a lot of dogs. Realize that the Nobel Prize is a deeply lagging indicator, and the United States should start to see a deep falloff in our accumulation of this prize in the decades to come. This future failure as a society has its origin in trust, or more properly the lack of it.
Lack of trust may be one way we can easily capture the malaise we find ourselves in. To get out of this we need to go out and fail, and fail some more. We might call it “glorious failure” because in its wake the seed of success are planted, and given the environment that allows you to fail once more success in the truest sense can be achieved. To get to the point where we can allow this requires courage, faith in humanity and trust.