Science\’s creativity crisis



Are you as innovative as you want to be? Although eight of 10 respondents in a poll of thousands of workers from the United States, Europe, and Japan in 2012 said creativity was critical to unlocking global economic potential, only one in four felt they were fulfilling their own creative potential. Almost half complained that they don’t have the skills to be as imaginative as they could be.

That’s no surprise. Few of us are systematically taught to innovate. As a result, we are hindered and made to feel vulnerable because leaders of major companies rank flexibility and creativity among the top characteristics they look for in employees.

That’s not just a problem for us as individuals; it’s a problem for society. Who doesn’t marvel at the advances underlying our smartphones and computers? Yet we seem to be inadequate to confronting our greatest challenges. Lack of affordable clean energy and water has wrought climate extremes and endangered species. We’re plagued by Alzheimer’s disease, emerging infections, cancer, preterm birth, and obesity. We’re pretty good at micro-innovation, but we lack the vision, the ambition, and the strategy for the revolutionary innovation that these problems demand.

I woke up to this truth some years ago. I’d spent my career as an academic scientist excelling within a time-honored formula: publishing and getting grants. But then a former boss told me that wasn’t enough. \”You are doing everything right as an academic,\” he said. \”But you are not changing the direction of your field.\”

I rejected that assessment at first but then came to realize that he was right. Only by taking risks and challenging norms can science leap forward. I started to write papers that countered conventional wisdom. For instance, one in 1996 suggested that the disease pre-eclampsia, a leading global killer of pregnant women, might represent accelerated cardiovascular disease. At the time, that idea seemed ridiculous; indeed, it was believed to have been disproven by the field’s greatest authorities. But it has since become part of the standard thinking.

Beginning to wonder where scientific innovation came from, I delved into the substantial literature on creativity. Over the past generation, experts have constructed training programs to educate students to think more creatively. That training has focused on children. That’s important, and good, but hey, what about adults? We would never expect an engineer to master technical calculations without having learned calculus, but we expect budding scientists to be on the forefront of innovation without giving them the necessary tools.

Tools to promote innovation—generating powerful, constructive frames and metaphors; eliminating contextual bias; and so on—can be taught. But that’s only half the battle. The other half is a resource-starved, hidebound, risk-averse institutional culture that often discourages innovation.

From one standpoint, that’s understandable. The large organizations that employ most scientists have to mind their bottom lines, traditions, and rules to survive. But can that culture of caution be reconciled with one of creation?

The story of Sidney Farber, one of America’s foremost scientific heroes and the father of chemotherapy to treat childhood leukemia, squarely shows the tension between creation and caution. His demonstration in the 1950s that the antifolate methotrexate could cure some childhood leukemia, by depriving rapidly growing cells of a needed metabolite, sparked a revolution. At a time when cancer was uniformly fatal, he proved there could be remissions.

Since Farber’s momentous discovery, leaps in treatments that are quickly deliverable and have commercial potential have become a key source of university revenue. The newest drugs, often produced by teams of academic scientists in partnership with giant pharmaceutical companies, give patients a few months more of life and give academe and industry huge profits.

But for most forms of cancer, cures like the one Farber produced remain rare, and fundamental insights like his—that cancer cells can be starved—have been few and far between. One reason might be that advances in basic understanding can’t be easily protected or monetized. Just as free music downloads are financially ruinous to that industry, free dissemination of revolutionary knowledge is bad business for cash-strapped research institutions. The realities of modern economics reward quick-win, lucrative, incremental innovation over the long, circuitous, failure-ridden paths that lead to scientific revolutions.

If financial incentives are stacked against far-reaching breakthroughs, so is scientific culture, which is hierarchical, insular, and slow to change. Scientific leaders and policy makers can and should disrupt science-based norms only when they feel comfortable that they understand the consequences. But while science’s gradual, systematic approaches might thwart, for instance, destructive technologies and toxins, they can also undermine constructive innovation. Established careers are anchored in accepted beliefs; innovation can knock leaders from their pedestals. Farber became a celebrity from the recognition that he had discovered the first treatment for childhood leukemia, even though his discovery has frightful limits: Antifolates breed resistant tumors and have side effects that can be life-threatening. Nonetheless, it took two generations for oncology to overthrow Farber’s scorched-earth tradition.

What elevated Farber and others in science’s hierarchy is the notion of idea ownership. A winner-take-all system rewards star discoverers with fame and fortune. But it disregards the reality that not one but many scientists typically contribute to an important discovery, even if only one or a few take home a Nobel. How surprising is it, then, that science has been slow to embrace the social revolution of our time: democratic, web-based crowdsourcing. Within science’s social order, just as within its business model, requisite caution has become so heavily weighted that it swamps the need to create.

Occasionally an organization abandons convention and overcomes these creation-cautious conflicts. One model is Janelia Farm, established in 2006 by one of America’s largest foundations, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A sprawling, secure research campus an hour outside Washington, it combines function with beauty. The glass-enclosed main building houses laboratories and office space accommodating more than 200 scientists. Resident housing, a large recreation facility, a cafe, a well-stocked library, day care, and even a dry cleaner allow residents to have few cares other than work.

More than a site or a focus, Janelia is a philosophy. Its approach to maximizing scientific creativity involves funding brilliant people, promoting synergy, providing ample resources, and respecting the twists and time needed to produce radical solutions. Talent is attracted from all over the world and from a wide range of disciplines: molecular biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and biostatistics, to name a few.

Synergy is stimulated by the main building’s open architecture, which enhances opportunities for colleagues to bump into each other. Communal spaces and shared major equipment further encourage collaboration. Even eating compels interactions: A sit-down lunch is served in a single shift. If scientists want to enjoy a hot meal at mid-day, they must mingle.

Janelia promotes research flexibility and boldness by providing the most sophisticated equipment and facilities while limiting administrative requirements. In contrast to universities, Janelia discourages external grant support. Absent having to spend an estimated 40 percent of their time scrounging for piecemeal funding, each scientist has more time for productive research. But to ensure that this doesn’t breed complacency, Janelia offers no tenure. With the exception of group leaders, employees are early-career scientists with relatively lengthy yet finite appointments. When they leave, these young people hope to find plum jobs in academe. But to do so, they must use their time to produce important results.

The priority is audacious research that often takes years and encounters many bumps in the road. Initial appointments are generally financed for five to seven years, longer than at most academic institutions. Productivity is measured by review committees—not according to publications, grant revenues, or professional accolades, but based on originality and potential impact. Circuitous paths and inevitable failures along the way are considered par for the course.

Grand experiments such as Janelia take time—often decades—to ripen. Yet, less than a decade after its founding, Janelia produced its first Nobel Prize, for Eric Betzig, in chemistry, in 2014. How many scientific revolutions will come from mixing brilliant young investigators in a liberating, resource-rich environment and challenging them to pursue disruptive innovations?

Janelia is possible only through the largess of its wealthy sponsor. Federal agencies, still the largest source of support for university research, would be well served by following many of Janelia’s examples. Such change, however, if and when it comes, will be slow. In the meantime, institutions can and should put into play their own innovation strategies.

While I was dean at the University of Texas School of Public Health, the Innovation Incubator Committee, a group of young scientists, was formed to nourish a culture of creativity. A search was begun to hire faculty members on the basis of their imaginative potential. Advertisements called for early-career scientists who were creating \”surprise in the service of health and prosperity.\” Past productivity was necessary but not sufficient—candidates needed to demonstrate their originality. For five openings, 225 candidates applied.

The school highlights as well the creativity within its own ranks. A Trailblazers Seminar Series invites faculty members to share short, TED-style talks about their own sagas of exploration. We put in place incentives for pursuing creative research, including an award of several thousand dollars for the person designated by colleagues as having made the most surprising and useful contribution of the year.

The Front of the Envelope, an internal pilot program, offers grants of as much as $25,000 to investigators who describe a novel idea on a standard No. 10 envelope. In addition to the research incentives, I teach a semester-long course explaining a method for innovative scientific thinking.

But what good is all that innovation savvy if you’re bogged down in paperwork? So we also embarked on a \”paperwork reduction act,\” trying to strip away administrative rules and forms not absolutely essential to protect the school’s educational and research missions.

It’s hard to quantify the impact, but these small steps, in combination, appear to have energized many faculty members to pursue higher-risk research in a \”just do it\” way. One such study involves new methods to measure and assess adenovirus 36 as a possible cause of obesity. Another explores a systems-science method to study cancer survivorship.

If such a scientific culture, balancing creativity and caution, could be made the norm, we could better tackle the world’s great problems. After all, timidity can pose the greatest risks of all.

Author Bio: Roberta Ness is vice president for innovation at the University of Texas at Houston and a former dean of the university’s School of Public Health. Her book The Creativity Crisis: Reinventing Science to Unleash Possibility is just out from Oxford University Press.