Fostering Creativity in Science

How can we, as a society, move beyond outdated, stale perspectives on research and support innovative science? This is a question that will be addressed by two of this year’s TEDMED speakers (both featured in our Catalyzing Great Science session). Each offers out-of-the-box solutions to upend conventional thinking about innovation, and move intriguing ideas past the conceptual stage into the real world, where they can be applied to critical problems in health and medicine.

Roberta Ness
Roberta Ness, innovation expert, urges scientists to take “bold leaps into risky new idea space.”

Innovation expert and physician-researcher Roberta Ness, a former Dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health and currently the Vice President of Innovation for Health Sciences at UT Houston, urges scientists to move beyond fear and take “bold leaps into risky new idea space.” The fear of shattering convention and the anxiety about the potential cost to a nascent career is holding scientists back, she believes. To Support her claim, Roberta cites the obesity epidemic, climate change and emerging infectious diseases as examples of humankind-threatening problems that science is “painfully slow to address,” and which won’t be solved by “step-wise, incremental scientific advances.”

Author of Genius Unmasked and The Creativity Crisis, Roberta advocates training programs to nurture the creative process and teach scientists how to innovate. Asked to name the one person she’d most like to collaborate with, Roberta offers a surprising choice: Henry Ford.

Why? In transforming the way automobiles are developed and manufactured, Ford “literally changed the face of America, which is now honeycombed with highways and suburbs,” Roberta says, noting that “contrary to popular belief, his motivation was not mercenary. He yearned for every American to have access to freedom by way of inexpensive, dependable transportation. He built Model T cars to be cheap and to last forever. He believed in radical ideas and he believed that surprising invention should be in service to humanity.”

Elizabeth Iorns
Elizabeth Iorns, Founder of Science Exchange

Elizabeth Iorns, Founder of Science Exchange, also believes that scientific research is in need of a culture shift – one that places less emphasis on “breakthrough” findings that are not necessarily validated, and instead celebrates and rewards reproducible research. Drawing from her experience as a breast cancer researcher, Elizabeth points out that, in the current system, there is little incentive for replication of studies and that a substantial amount of important research findings have, in fact, never been reproduced. Such is the premise for Science Exchange, an online marketplace for outsourcing scientific research and validating results. Not only do these efforts improve reliability, but they also accelerate the pace at which innovation occurs, Elizabeth believes. Science Exchange recently launched a new initiative (called, appropriately enough, “Validation”), that aims to help researchers identify and reward high quality reproducible research via independent validation of key experimental results.

According to Elizabeth, the current view of collaboration in the scientific world is “dysfunctional.” She claims that our tendency to credit only one or perhaps a few people for scientific breakthroughs is a gross misunderstanding of how important research actually takes place. “Most historical breakthroughs are a collaboration of people and they are products of an environment with many influences,” says Elizabeth. “Over time these collaborators are forgotten and the influences missed. Many people know that Rosalind Franklin generated the key x-ray crystallography images that led to the understanding of the shape of DNA, but got little credit. How many Rosalind Franklins were there in history?”