Exclusion Of Diversity And Creativity Impedes Scientific Innovation

Scientific Innovation Author: Fred M. Cowan The "information age" with accompanying "big science" has emphasized data generation, analytical thinking, and specialization. This may have had the unfortunate consequence of segregating mainstream science from the novel and abstract ideas, often created at the margins of science, that stimulate rapid progress and invention. Has too narrow a focus on empirical phenomena slowed the innovations that benefit society and prove the utility of science?

Nov 27, 1995
Fred Cowan

Scientific Innovation Author: Fred M. Cowan

The "information age" with accompanying "big science" has emphasized data generation, analytical thinking, and specialization. This may have had the unfortunate consequence of segregating mainstream science from the novel and abstract ideas, often created at the margins of science, that stimulate rapid progress and invention. Has too narrow a focus on empirical phenomena slowed the innovations that benefit society and prove the utility of science?

The perception that science has not sufficiently focused on the needs of society has surfaced among the lay population and elected officials, who ultimately control research funds. This is caused, in part, by false expectations that science would miraculously deliver mankind from disease, war, hunger, and so forth. However, with the current reality of strategic, results-oriented science as well as budget cuts, science can ill afford to revere dogma and maintain conventions that obstruct invention. This does not imply that we should forsake cornerstones of science by ignoring analysis or scientific data. Yet achieving more diversity and a better balance of empirical and creative thinking might immensely benefit science.

A principal tenet for public funding of science is that scientists would direct basic research for some real but abstract future benefit to society. However, in an era of service jobs, stagnant salaries, and reduced and delayed retirements, the concept that science for science's sake and the innovations that benefit society ultimately intersect has become more difficult to convey. The strong foundations that science funding has traditionally enjoyed are already being undercut. Rep. George Brown, Jr. (former chairman and now senior Democrat on the newly named House of Representatives Science Committee) estimates that science funding in real dollars will be reduced by 25 percent by the year 2000. Brown encourages scientists to link their work to "national goals." Brown further warns, "More concretely, if the scientific community cannot reconnect with basic social values, you will find yourselves in a role as central to policy making as a Democrat in Washington . . . a status I wouldn't wish on anyone" (C. Macilwain, Nature, 363:646, 1995).

Three members of the scientific community have published articles describing aspects of a problem that may be a central impediment to progress and continued support for funding in science: (1) "Science for Art's Sake" by Sukumar Vijayaraghavan (Nature, 372:590, 1994) laments that the emphasis on scientific methodology has stifled creativity; (2) "Discouraging Hypotheses Slows Progress" by David Horrobin (The Scientist, Nov. 26, 1990, page 13) proposes that biomedical science has failed to develop a healthy tradition of theoretical evaluation to challenge dogma and promote new ideas; and (3) "The Surprising Nature Of Scientific Genius" by Dean Keith Simonton (The Scientist, Feb. 6, 1989, page 9) provides a "profile" of persons who make major contributions to science and expresses concern that science may often exclude "scientific geniuses."

The authors collectively assert that

  1. methods have become more important than accomplishment,
  2. overemphasis on scientific dogma precludes hypotheses that might extend fresh insights, and
  3. individuals with ideas that might greatly benefit discovery may be excluded from, or ignored by, contemporary science.
Such flaws may hamper the synergy between empirical and creative reflection and slow the pace of scientific innovation.

Elie Shneour, in "Of Semantics And The Scientist Population: Are There Too Many Of Us?" (The Scientist, Sept. 18, 1995, page 12, concludes that "there are today too many individuals who consider themselves scientists with a legitimate privilege to seek financial support for their potential contribution to scientific research." This, of course, provokes the larger questions of who is worthy of a career in research science, who is excluded, and who decides. In a time of diminished resources, merely preserving the center of premier institutes and prominent scientists seems and is a simplistic solution. Allowing the margins of science to fade will further reduce the intellectual diversity and creativity that are often the source of innovation.

And The Right Stuff The dogma of scientific hierarchy suggests that "the best and the brightest" will study at the leading academic institutions to form the core idea-makers for the next generation. However, the use of any individual quality, such as intellect or academic merit, as a prescription for predicting success must be followed with caution. The perception of "the best and the brightest" was typified by the advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Of these, Robert Strange McNamara, concerning Vietnam policies, admits, "We were wrong, terribly wrong." The myth that the brightest and the best are always the same individuals could prove as detrimental to science as to foreign policy. The brightest may not always be the wisest, the most innovative, or the best.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to predict with much precision who possesses the qualities and abilities to perform a key experiment or assemble the pixels of data to form a discernible picture that creates a new awareness or solves a problem. The only proven formula for predicting success in scientific research is prior accomplishment in research.

Dean Keith Simonton has identified some qualities that typify scientific geniuses, including visionaries and inventors such as Einstein: "Scientific geniuses are phenomenal risk takers, frequently pursuing ideas that seem prima facie implausible. They do not necessarily boast higher IQs [or more formal education] than their less-remarkable colleagues, yet they are distinguished by their intense devotion to their work. . . . As an integral part of this commitment, these individuals are nonconformist, even iconoclasts, often residing at the margins of their disciplines . . . geniuses have no tricks by which they can circumvent the long hours devoted to contemplating empirical phenomena." Thus, geniuses do not create by serendipity. Their careers, though "far more productive than the norm . . . [include] about as many failures as successes. to offer contributions that can revolutionize their disciplines."

Genius refers to one gifted with exceptional intellectual or creative power. However, the original Latin translates literally to "guardian spirit." This metaphysical quality of creative spirit is the quintessence of genius. Geniuses seem to step outside themselves, beyond the current ideas and institutional conventions of their time and place, to create a new perspective. Here the cliché of the best and the brightest, while not totally inaccurate, is certainly insufficient. By nature, genius defies hierarchy and shatters any conventions that attempt too tightly to encompass or define. Therefore, any search process or strategy designed to predict geniuses will prove an exercise in futility.

Genius, or even the best scientific minds, need not be searched for or selected but allowed to develop. While genius cannot be predicted, it can be promoted, discovered, and recognized. The creative spirit compels geniuses to devise ideas and inventions, even in an environment hostile to their work. To propagate genius and talent we need only inspire youth and provide a diversity of educational and career opportunities that encourage innovative and creative minds. To discover genius, we must open our minds to ideas that may seem prima facie implausible. To reward genius, those who accomplish must be recognized and supported. The best, who possess the right stuff of genius, are not lost; and, if not excluded, deprived of opportunity, or ignored, genius will assuredly find us.

Exclusion of ideas created at the margins of mainstream science ensures that not only the bad, but also the brilliant hypotheses of persons on a path less traveled are ignored. Scientific ideas that lack the data that will ultimately prove or disprove their validity are too often destroyed before the worth of the hypothesis is determined. Many a novel concept has been exiled to oblivion with the epitaph "you have no data; you can't say that."

The act of thinking, even in the absence of scientific data, shouldbe encouraged. As long as a theoretical hypothesis is clearly identified as such, it is no threat to empirical science, and indeed may prove a valuable resource for designing experiments. Empirical data devoid of imagination destroy the dialogue within science. This denies the public the ability to fully appreciate science, and science is deprived of a healthy influx of diverse ideas and points of view.

The public has, over the past five decades, generously funded biomedical research. From the March of Dimes to the "War on Cancer" and the emergence of the biotechnology industry, investments of both public and private treasure have been forthcoming. Investment, by the very nature of the term, expects a sustained return. Regrettably, the brilliant conquest of polio has not been followed by much success in treating major cancers, nor have most biotechnology companies yielded reliable profits. Even the old enemy, infectious disease-with emerging diseases such as AIDS and antibiotic- resistant bacteria-is again a critical threat to public health.

To rekindle the public's faith in and devotion to science, an awareness of the essential role of science in creating the innovations that benefit society, must be reestablished and a feeling of public participation in the scientific process restored. A better understanding of how science and the needs of society might best be integrated, and a more inclusive representation of society, will be required to formulate future science policies and maintain a rapport that ensures adequate funding.

This diversity and inclusiveness will require science, industry, government, and the rest of society to construct and strengthen bridges from ideas to invention, from basic to applied science, and from development to market. Such technology transfer should become a seamless natural extension and major goal of the scientific process.

This does not imply that basic science or that all science activities should be formally integrated, but that a new awareness of ways to promote development of technology should be explored. For example, maintenance of a national office of science and technology that does not direct science but has the specific mission to identify useful inventions and support their development might be valuable. Furthermore, politicians can pass laws that speed incorporation of technology. For example, if a newly designed internal combustion engine increased gas mileage and lowered pollution, Congress could enact more stringent mileage or clean air standards that reflect the new technology and promote its implementation.

A recent special section in Science ("The future of the Ph.D.," 270:123-46, 1995) describes how many institutes have and others are considering transforming and broadening their curricula so that students will acquire the more diverse skills required to meet the needs and opportunities of future careers in science. These changes in curriculum include, but are not limited to, reducing the time needed to train a Ph.D. and increasing the scope of Ph.D. training for careers outside research science, and better preparing Ph.D.'s to work at smaller colleges with fewer research resources. As an alternative to the Ph.D., some institutes are offering a marketable master's degree that more closely fits the needs of industry. It seems that the need for diversity of talent and the realization of limited resources are already beginning to shape the future of science education.

A new paradigm for science is currently being formulated, with those who fund us demanding a more precise explanation of how science functions within society. An inclusive dialogue between science and the rest of society is no longer an option but an imperative. If science fails to accept this imperative, and retreats from its margins to the hallowed halls and ivory towers, the public may exercise their option to no longer pay the rent. Cultivating an equilibrium of diversity, creativity, and empirical analysis should help bring about the innovations that prove the utility of science and yield reasonable policies for science funding.

Fred Cowan Fred M. Cowan is president of Uppsala Inc., a biotechnology company in Colora, Md. He holds the United States patent on the use of Fc receptors for immunotherapy.