In the system of American science, caution has overtaken creation

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 speaker Roberta Ness

The scientific community is unwell. Worse, the hospital to which it has been taken is utterly unsuited to cure it. Young professionals feel that the system does not promote, but instead strangles, their creative dreams. The result: the most extraordinary potential for progress in history is being squandered.

InnovationInnovation is society’s engine of progress– our instrument for hope. Our modern love affair with innovation leads us to desire having as much of it as possible and to fear its loss. A quick web search for “innovation” yields about as many hits as the word, “boyfriend”. Yet, our system of science from its funders through its institutions, does not allow practitioners to reach their full creative potential. I know this firsthand because I have encountered so many of these frustrated scientists.. Nearly every time I lectured at a research university about how to improve innovative thinking, a young person would stand up at the back of the room during the question and answer period and say something like, “Dr. Ness, this was inspirational, but you are proposing really radical new ideas. If I tried to do what you counsel, I would never be able to get funded or be published.” I heard this lament perhaps a dozen times when finally it struck me, “duh– there’s a big problem here, and it is not due to these young, bright minds.”

The problem, I came to discover in writing my most recent book The Creativity Crisis is that caution has overtaken creation within the system of American science. Society begs for revolutionary advancement but spends its dollars on tangible products. Ideas are conceived as “individually owned” and intellectual property is shielded by patents rather than shared for the benefit of all. The hierarchy and insularity of science stymies rich collaborative possibilities, so, for instance, the historic opportunities offered by crowdsourcing goes unexploited. A suffocating burden of federal and state restrictions and regulations continue to grow as society becomes increasingly apprehensive about the harms that science can bring.

The result of this perfect storm is that the largest and most difficult problems science must solve-– climate change, emerging epidemics, social inequity, Alzheimer’s disease-– rage unabated. I believe we must find solutions to these disasters-in-progress that are far more radical than the current system permits.

Yet, not all is doom and gloom. Science continues to march forward at a prodigious pace, even if that march often produces things less necessary than nice. Some institutions such as the Howard Hughes Foundation and Google have incorporated a series of systems changes for the focused purpose of tending and nurturing creative innovation.

We need not be satisfied with a system of science that fails to achieve its full potential for advancing societal well-being. To implement original solutions to society’s most threatening problems, we must bring creation and caution into equipoise. The Creativity Crisis examines in detail the ills of modern science and multiple remedies that, by abandoning convention, may contribute to fixing the broken system. I can only hope that this book and related TEDMED talk will launch a discussion in which all of you will help to reinvent the scientific ecosystem. I believe that if you open your minds and your hearts to the potential for creative disruption, together we can solve the creativity crisis and unleash possibility.


Roberta Ness TEDMED Artist Illustration_FotorIn her TEDMED 2015 talk, innovation expert and physician-researcher Roberta Ness imparted her wisdom for combatting science’s creativity crisis and sparking the type of revolutionary innovations that science and medicine so desperately need.