How to talk about “failed” research projects

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Failure is a hot topic right now. The ‘Pizza For Losers’ events earlier this year took the charity world by storm, enabling people to talk openly about failures, hiccups, and outright disasters – and how they learnt from them.

Charities are talking more openly about their shortfalls as organisations. For example, CLIC Sargant recently won a Third Sector Award for their brilliant “Hands up, we’re not perfect” section in their 2018 Annual Report.

As charities (and as individuals) we always like to share our amazing successes with others. We would always prefer not to talk about stuff that hasn’t gone so well. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable.

I’ll give you an example. Whilst working at a charity I contributed to a report for a supporter group who had reach a major milestone in their fundraising. With considerable effort over many years, they had single-handedly funded several research projects.

Most of the projects had led to small but important breakthroughs in medical research. However, a few of the projects hadn’t gone as well as had been hoped, for various reasons. Nevertheless, it wasn’t possible not to talk about these – we had to include them in the report.

Take the bad with the good

Part of any good relationship – whether it’s between two people, or a charity and its supporters – is being willing to speak about failures as well as successes. I spoke to Nikki Bell, an award-winning freelance fundraiser and the founder of the ‘Pizza for Losers’ event, about this idea.

“We’re only human and I think there’s a pressure on being perfect all of the time,” Nikki said. But she agrees that being open about failures has the potential to strengthen a donor-charity relationship.

She gave an example of a conversation she had with a corporate sponsor for an event. “We’d promised logo placement on a brochure that we couldn’t get the money to fund. I called them to explain, giving them the option to have the money refunded. But they were totally cool, they just wanted to show support in some way. We’re now going to meet post-event to find out how we can make it work for next year.”

As for the report I worked on, it was well received by the fundraising group. The strong relationship that they had had with the charity meant that it was possible to talk honestly about what hadn’t gone well, as well as celebrate the positive impact they had made overall. The group is still raising money for the charity to this day.

How to talk about ‘failed’ projects.

There’s a few different things you can do to talk positively about research which hasn’t gone to plan. What unites them is that they try to look at the outcomes of the project differently.

The long-story-short is that a project might not really be as much of a ‘failure’ as it might seem at first. There’s always something that has been achieved, or a lesson that has been learnt. It’s possible to acknowledge the positives of any project, whilst acting with integrity and acknowledging where things haven’t gone to plan.

Below I outline a few ways that this can be done, and a few important rules to bear in mind.

Rule #1 – don’t make s**t up

So obvious it barely needs saying, but do not invent amazing achievements, or omit important but inconvenient details, just to please someone. Equally, do not try to ‘spin’ anything to make it sound vastly more impressive than it really is. The risk to your charity’s reputation if you were to be found out would be enormous.

2) Don’t throw your researchers under a bus

Though your charity has funded the research, it’s unlikely you’ll be directly involved in the success of a research project. But most people will not see the distinction – in their eyes, the research you fund is yours, in the same way you ‘own’ anything that your charity does in-house.

What this means in practice is that you should treat the researchers your charity funds in the same way you would treat your own colleagues (that’s ‘treat them well’, in case it wasn’t obvious).

Don’t be tempted to blame your researchers for a ‘failure’. It’s not only unfair, it also reflects poorly on you – no one likes a backstabber. It might also suggest that you don’t trust your own charity’s grant management processes – not a good look for anyone hoping to convince donors to trust you.

3) Look at the bigger picture

Why do you think this research project ‘failed’? Is it because it didn’t achieve the narrow set of objectives it set out to? Newsflash: research projects rarely achieve exactly what they planned to at the beginning. It’s common for a research project to wander in its own direction.

So how can we take this into account when talking about a project? Instead of framing the achievements in terms of a set of specific objectives, put them into the bigger picture.

For example, let’s imagine a researcher is trying to work out how ‘Molecule X’ is involved in resistance to treatment for cancer. Maybe they didn’t find out anything about Molecule X, but instead they found out something about how resistance is driven by something else e.g. Molecule Y. You could point to Molecule Y (whilst acknowledging Molecule X), and how that helps to achieve the bigger goal of understanding drug resistance and stopping people dying. The bigger picture is more important in this scenario.

4) Risk vs. reward

Research is risky. Your scientists are pushing at the boundaries of what we know about health and disease.

Think about the context of how you’re funding research. You might be funding grants of relatively small pots of money, designed to test new ideas out. They might have names like ‘pilot’, ‘discovery’, ‘innovation’, or ‘pump-priming’ grants.

Some of these projects will succeed and provide new breakthroughs, but many will not. That is their nature. You could communicate the outcomes of the project in this context, explaining the concept behind that particular grant type and what it’s trying to achieve.

5) Moment of truth

At the other end of the research project scale to pilot grants might be clinical trials. Sometimes, a trial for (e.g.) a new drug which initially showed promise can in fact show that the drug doesn’t work as hoped. This can be a huge disappointment for everyone – patients, doctors, researchers, funders and charities.

Clinical trials can be seen as a ‘moment of truth’, a chance to pose a big question, e.g. does this drug increase life-expectancy / delay disease progression / control symptoms – yes or no?

Whatever the answer, it is an important answer. Everyone wants a success of course, but the ‘failures’ can be useful too. For example, a ‘failed’ trial could lead to new research to pinpoint exactly who would benefit from a drug.

For communicating the outcomes, I think it’s best to acknowledge the disappointment, but also think about the questions that it raises, and the new directions that the research can head in. The end of an unsuccessful trial is often not the end of the line.

6) “Technical challenges”

I’ve read a fair few research reports in my time which included a phrase like “technical challenges” – often code for “our method didn’t work, and we ran out of time trying to get it right”.

But bear in mind that a project which has had its technical hitches can still be success. Perhaps the researchers now have a perfect technique that will work the next time. Or conversely, maybe they now know not to waste time doing it that way again! Either way, methodological advances are still important, and will help them achieve their goals in the future.

7) Consider ‘outputs’ other than papers

There are lots of different ways that achievements can be measure. Maybe the researchers didn’t get that Nature paper they were aiming for. But as any researcher will tell you, not all achievement should be measured by the metric of research papers or impact factors.

As well improvements in methodology (mentioned above), also consider personal development. For example, a PhD studentship might not have led to a ground-breaking discovery – but it may have produced a new brilliant scientist, equipped with new skills and knowledge, who could go on to achieve great things in the future.

A good way to collect information like this would be to speak to the researcher involved. A progress report sent via email might paint a less-than-perfect picture of what’s been achieved. But sometimes chatting over the phone about a project could reveal something else much more positive.

People are understanding

I’ve been in a few situations where researchers and supporters have met, and discussion leads to work that hasn’t gone to plan. It’s often been a bit of an awkward moment, as I think researchers (and charities) would always like to present a positive narrative to the public: science is always advancing, always making positive steps towards a bigger goal.

But in these situations, the response from supporters has always been the same. They nod and say something like “it’s good to know what doesn’t work as much as what does, or “well, at least you can focus on something else now.”

People are more understanding than you might expect. Clearly, supporters give money to charities to achieve results and make a difference. But I think that, intuitively, supporters also understand that science is difficult. If everything worked first time, we’d already have that ‘cure for cancer’ (or dementia/Parkinson’s/blindness/bipolar disorder etc.) by now.

Isn’t this why charities exist? To bring people together to tackle the big problems and make a positive change? We always need to see the bigger picture and talk about the great progress we’re making. But there can’t be progress with setbacks or hurdles, and I think it’s just as important that charities acknowledge those too.

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