Innovation Renovation

Is the fear of funding and doing fundamental, risky research killing our ability to make breakthroughs?

By Roberta B. Ness | January 1, 2015

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, JANUARY 2015Sidney Farber is one of America’s foremost scientific heroes. The story of this pediatric pathologist, who birthed chemotherapy, is a perfect illustration of a struggle that has become a hallmark of the modern research enterprise: creation vs. caution. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Farber discovered that folate antagonists could help treat certain childhood leukemias and lymphomas, overturning the existing reality that cancer always killed. Farber worked with minimal funding, doggedly pursuing his holy grail of curing leukemia and other pediatric cancers, despite colleagues’ skepticism. But he often failed to obtain consent to test drugs that killed many patients and published only the subset of his data that showed the best results. Since then, the economics, sociology, and ethics of scientific research have taken a sizable cautionary turn. Indeed, Farber may not have succeeded in revolutionizing cancer treatment—with the unfortunate tolls paid on the road to the innovation—had he been working today.

Most science funders these days favor caution, seeking evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) advances that are quickly deliverable, tangible, and potentially marketable. The newest cancer drugs prolong life for a few months and make huge profits, but no tranformative treatments have been developed in a generation. Congress has put increasing pressure on funding agencies to attain quick wins. Cash-strapped academic institutions have accelerated this focus by turning more and more toward intellectual property–based revenue. Fundamental research, the engine of transformational progress, is in decline. This is the quandary I dissect in my newest book, The Creativity Crisis: Reinventing Science to Unleash Possibility.

Sociologically, science and its practitioners, too, are cautious. Science is hierarchical, insular, and slow to change. Thought leaders and policy makers are loath to disrupt norms based on partial evidence—a necessity, as new discoveries (think the atomic bomb) can harm people. But resistance to disruptive changes in existing paradigms also has less lofty motivations.

True innovation threatens top scientists who control research agendas—enduring elites who arise as “owners” of ideas. Farber’s novel approach to fighting cancer has frightful limits: tumors become resistant and side effects can be life-threatening. Nonetheless, it took two generations for oncology to begin to wean itself from this all-out war wherein the patient sometimes fell victim to the very treatment intended for the tumor.

The newest sociologic revolution, crowdsourcing, is a supremely democratic, Web-based problem-solving tool, which has the power to quickly and efficiently harness group originality. But tradition-bound science has been slow to embrace this approach.

Ethics constitutes a final battlefield between creation and caution. The same scientific breakthrough can be used for good in the hands of one person and evil in the hands of another. Caution is a necessary check on the destructive potential of amoral creation. Yet, when every individual and institution is considered to be a threat, overregulation strangles novelty. Innovation requires risk; society’s growing culture of risk aversion limits science’s ability to make breakthroughs.

During my lectures to thousands of academic scientists about a systematic method that teaches innovative thinking, I have been repeatedly challenged by an alarming reality check: “Your innovative thinking tools are inspirational. But if I were to put forth really unusual ideas I would never succeed in my career,” audience members have told me over and over again. Always voiced by young professionals, this remonstration represents their feeling of being chained by the resource-poor, hidebound, risk-averse environment of the research community. Realistically, the large organizations that employ most scientists must pay attention to their bottom lines, retain traditions, and have rules in order to survive. Science suffers from the ongoing creation vs. caution conflict.

The Creativity Crisis offers concrete proposals that abandon convention and reach for more-optimized approaches to promoting innovation. My challenge to all is to confront the creativity crisis by reinventing our scientific ecosystem.

Roberta B. Ness is vice president for innovation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and holds the M. David Low Chair in Public Health at the University of Texas School of Public Health. Read an excerpt from The Creativity Crisis.

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Avatar of: JJAK


Posts: 1

January 15, 2015

This sounds llke a great read! It addresses exactly the struggles that all true scientists are facing. I believe that most of us got into the science field out of curiosity in certain science topics and with a drive to explore and learn more. However unfortunatley a lot of our research is driven by money, fame and politics. I recently gave a TEDx talk about this:

Wouldn't it be great to explore and revolutionize in science without the constraints of funding and marketability? 

Avatar of: FJScientist


Posts: 31

January 15, 2015

Every scientist has innovative ideas that he/she thinks should be prioritized above the rest. The problem lies in how to compare them and evaluate which should received a portion of the limited amount of funding necessary to pursue the concept. Currently, in the United States, the grant funding process starts with a need to have all grant reviewers agree that your project is both uniquely interesting and has a reasonable likelihood of being as ground-breaking as you claim it to be. That's a high bar, especially for revolutionary ideas with no solid supporting evidence.

Crowdfunding techniques, mentioned in the article, might be interesting for a limited percentage of available funds.  I worry about the herd mentality inherent in crowd-funding leading to over-emphasis on yesterday's emerging area of excitement when truly innovative grants support those emerging today.

Solutions may need to remove the tendency of each grant reviewer to consider proposals in their own field to be of highest innovation, no matter how incremental it appears to others. So, I think we have to remove the tendency of the panel to have the grants reviewed only by acknowledged experts in narrow fields, while somehow retaining sufficient expertise to know whether the proposed studies are likely to succeed/be signficant. In short, we must somehow change the  grant review culture away from 'expert reviews in extremely narrow areas' to 'generalist expert reviews across the scientific enterprise'. Including a reviewer from outside the field may be a start, although I sometimes see such a reviewer dismissed with 'leave that to the experts'-style comments.


Avatar of: Mounthell


Posts: 53

Replied to a comment from FJScientist made on January 15, 2015

January 15, 2015


FJScientist's comment is insightful and very appropriate.


Experts in a given field, expending or having expended effort (energy) to cultivate their relative standing in it, are, like all humans, reluctant to jeopardize their energy investment by encouraging potential competitive results which might deprecate their achievements. Moreover, we attract others to our apparently successful view and lend our support to their research efforts. Through such dynamics, our entire viewpoint of our field tends to conform to that which produced the successful results and recognition of our "school" of view. 


In fact, we see countless examples of toilers in fields who seemed to be verged on breakthrough abruptly diverge from their course (Linus Pauling and DNA's structure, Stephen J Gould and punctuated equilibrium's lessons about biological dynamics and so on).


My point here is that while the opinions of experts are valuable, they should not be put in decision-making positions. Instead, as FJSci suggests, a disinterested diversity of backgrounds -- however esoteric the topic -- would better serve us, toilers and payers alike!


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