The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Risk and Reward

By Cristin Dorgelo

In this May/June issue of Dimensions, we take a close look at the challenging topic of “risk,” a concept that manifests in all aspects of our lives. As individuals, we regularly face financial, personal, professional, and social risks. As leaders, we seek to manage, share, and distribute risk, while at the same time attempting to foster workplace cultures that have a healthy tolerance for risk-taking. As Charlie Trautmann says of risk in one of this month’s feature articles, “Don’t avoid it—instead, manage it.”

As science centers and institutions, we embrace a certain level of risk in the name of science and innovation, and we encourage our visitors to do the same. In an increasingly risk-averse society, it is more important now than ever that we showcase the demonstrated benefits of taking risks and of allowing for failure on the path toward discovery, systemic transformation, and societal progress. Science centers can encourage visitors to step outside their comfort zones to look at the world in new and different ways. Sometimes that necessitates a disruptive activity, such as Guerilla Science’s Sensory Speed Dating. Other times it simply calls for presence—a “build it and they will come” approach for a thirsty audience, such as the Museum of Life + Science’s Tinkering and Drinkering in Durham, North Carolina.

Scientific exploration and the pursuit of new technological solutions require a certain comfort with risk; breakthroughs are usually achieved by straying off the familiar path. Alexandre Quintanilha, chair of Portugal’s Parliamentary Committee on Education and Science, argues that “promoting curiosity, imagination, and the audacity to question authority has become one of the main goals of education at its very best”.

I’ve seen the power of strategic risk-taking firsthand. In my role leading the Obama White House’s cross-sector call to action to make progress toward Grand Challenges as part of a national innovation strategy, I observed that ambitious yet achievable goals—when defined with clarity of vision and specificity of purpose—have the potential to serve as compelling “North Stars” for cross-sector and multidisciplinary collaboration. From the public-private BRAIN Initiative focused on revolutionizing our understanding of brain function, to DARPA’s Grand Challenges that drove advances in robotics and automation, to NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge that engaged people around the world in the effort to find all asteroid threats to human populations, open and collaborative efforts to achieve “moonshot” goals have fostered shared risk-taking and advanced new approaches to solving tough problems.

Those of us who regularly undertake risk—in our careers, businesses, partnerships, programming, and outreach—do so emboldened by our commitment to the future of our institutions, our desire to contribute to the greater good, and our lasting passion for science and discovery. We embrace and manage risk in order to not just survive but to thrive.

Cristin Dorgelo is ASTC’s President and CEO.

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