On dealing with failed trials

To survive this moment, you need to be able to look everyone in the eye and remind them that the trial was designed to rigorously answer an important question. If this is true, then you have likely just learned something useful, regardless of whether the intervention worked or not. Further, if the study was well designed, other people will be more likely to trust your result and act on it. In other words, there is no such thing as a “negative” trial result – the answer given by a well-designed trial is always useful, whether the intervention worked or not. So you simply remind everyone of this. People will still be disappointed of course – we’d be fools to test treatments if we didn’t think they worked, and it’s natural to hope. But at least we know we ran a good trial and added knowledge to the world – that’s not nothing.

I rarely post quotes, but this is important enough to have it here. Go read the whole thing, now.

I tend to say that for scientists, there are no failed trials. Failed trials are investor-speak: and that’s not to say anything bad about investors or their perspective. They’re in the business to make money, and to them, a trial that means the drug candidate they just blew a billion dollars to develop will never make it to the market is, in a profound sense, a failure. But to us as scientists, it’s just another step on the journey of understanding more and more about this world (and as any scientist knows, failure is largely the bread and butter of experimental work). We’ve found another way that doesn’t work. Maybe we’ve saved lives, even – failed experiments have often stemmed the tide of predatory therapies or found toxicities that explain certain reactions with other drugs as well. Maybe we’ve understood something that may be useful somewhere else. And at worst, we’ve learned which road not to go down.

And to a scientist, that should not ever feel like a failure.