Fail, Then Succeed

Scientists who miss out on early grant money do better in the long run.

SCIENTISTS WHO EXPERIENCE failure at the beginning of their careers fare better than those who have early successes, according to three researchers from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois. They found that scientists who narrowly missed winning grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) ultimately published more successful papers than those who just as narrowly qualified for the money.

“The idea that one gets stronger through failure is the kind of stiff advice that people may tell themselves in difficult times,” says strategy professor Benjamin F. Jones in a KelloggInsight article. Jones conducted the research with Dashun Wang, associate professor of management and organizations, and postdoctoral researcher Yang Wang. “But is there any truth to it?”

The team studied more than 700,000 grant applications submitted to the NIH between 1990 and 2005. They focused on a grant called the R01, a common grant type deemed very important to biomedical researchers. Because applications receive numerical scores and funding is determined by what score the applications receive, the researchers could tell which applicants were “near misses” and which were “narrow wins.”

Failure itself motivated the near-miss group to try harder.

Applicants in both groups published about the same number of papers that had earned about the same number of citations. After following the careers of 623 near-miss and 561 narrow-win scientists, the team found that the two groups published at similar rates over the next decade, but that those who had missed out on NIH grants were more likely to have highly successful papers—i.e., papers that were among the top 5 percent of citations in a specific field and year.

Did failing to receive a grant discourage weaker scholars, who stopped researching altogether? Did near-miss scientists begin collaborating with better-known researchers, move to different schools, or adjust their research topics? None of the researchers’ analyses supported these theories, so the team concluded that failure itself was what motivated the near-miss group to try harder in their future endeavors.

“The advice to persevere is common,” says Jones. “But the idea that you take something valuable from the loss—and are better for it—is surprising and inspiring.”

“Early Career Setback and Future Career Impact” was published October 1, 2019, in Nature Communications.