Another year?

Surely a fundamental time constant has slipped. The years are going by much quicker than I remember. It seems like only weeks ago that I wrote the 2009 end of year message.
I came across a phrase while reading about a recent program evaluation posted on the Keck Foundation website that has me thinking about the ways Foundations determine grant outcomes. Although much of the evaluation committee findings summarized on Keck’s website was the usual high praise one expects when scientists review the private funding of science – the observation that Keck had also funded some “noble failures” could not but catch the eye. What is a noble failure? And what does it mean to a FOundation to have a few of these in their portfolio. I suppose “noble failure” describes work of promise that didn’t quite pan out. It is encouraging that Foundations funding science and traditionally claiming that they can and do take risks – actually taking risks. I do think attempting difficult work has a certain nobility. But do such efforts deserve to be saddled with the value-laden term failure. Isn’t it good science to tackle difficult problems in ways that might not immediately succeed? Don’t we gain valuable insights that help us try again along different paths? For some reason “noble failures” may me sad for the researchers who reached, and tried, and did not quite succeed – YET. Probably they are also not the kind that become easily discouraged. Or so we hope.