Innovation is a unique human trait. Science is also. Roberta Ness, M.D., MPH, addresses these interrelated topics in a book that starts with a guide to improving creativity in individuals, and concludes with a series of case histories that illustrate how innovation can go astray, primarily because it is subject to human frailties such as the bandwagon effect.1 Along the way, she critically discusses the peer review and grant funding system, particularly in the U.S.A.
I noticed a stack of the books in the Agilent booth during the last hour of the exhibition at HPLC 2014 in New Orleans. Great title (Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas), and free from a respected vendor. I quickly looked to see if she was an employee. Nope, so I bagged it. (Roberta Ness is Dean of Public Health at the University of Texas in Houston and Vice President of Innovation for UTHealth).
Dr. Ness defines innovation as creativity with a purpose. While innovation in public health has increased life expectancy by 30 years in just one century, this has uncovered health problems such as dementia, cancer, global warming, and long-term effects of poor sanitation. She fears that innovation in America has declined recently.
In response, she offers several chapters focusing on helping individual scientists think outside the frame. She quotes Albert Einstein: “Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created.” Several times, she points out that scientists propose discoveries that are consistent with current paradigms. However, the paradigms, while are often popular, were wrong. Hormone replacement therapy is one example.
Ness has broken the innovative process into several phases that she calls “PIG In MuD,”2 where “P” stands for “Phrase the question based upon interest, observation, and knowledge,” which seems to be the most important step. “I” is “Identify the frames and find alternatives.” “G” is “Generate all possible solutions.” “I” in “In” is for “Incubate,” “M” is “Meld your best idea back into the process of normal science,” and “D” is “Disseminate your innovative finding.” The next few chapters expand PIG In MuD with examples that are aimed mostly at individuals. I kept getting a vision of how it would be to work for Steve Jobs.
About midbook she introduces group intelligence to the process. Amazingly, she cites examples where the collective wisdom of multidisciplinary groups is even more powerful and effective. The report on location of the USS Scorpion is simply fascinating.3 The nuclear sub was missing, that was for sure, but what happened and where is it now? The Navy assembled a small interdisciplinary group to study all conceivable scenarios in detail to derive a probable location for the hull. The composite of the scenarios located the hull fragments mid-Atlantic within 220 yards. Interestingly, no one scenario was on target, but the collective was spot on.
Ness goes on to describe “hot teams,” which use brainstorming with a multidisciplinary group to quickly flesh out a design space and reduce the size to a vision of something tangible.4 The results of hot teams are recorded, and this information is allowed to Incubate as in the second “I” in “PIG In MuD.”
I’d recommend Innovation Generation... to scientists working in situations in which innovation is expected and valued. Many of us are not. I recall that one FDA Commissioner once remarked that “better is not the same” when referring to a licensed drug product. In some situations, consistency is required. However, Ness’s passion for innovation is what you’d expect from a professor of innovation at a major university.
The scientific method is really a rather recent philosophical tool that is useful in improving human welfare. She examines the impact of consistency arguments in contrast to absolute proof, which is much harder to realize in practice. This led me to ponder: The scientific method is useful, but is it the best we humans can do? Could philosophers devise an even more powerful tool? This is a real opportunity for innovation.
- Ness, R.B. Innovation Generation, How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas; Oxford University Press, 2012; ISBN 978-0-19-989259-4.
- Ibid p. 99.
- Ibid p. 145.
- Ibid p. 157.
Robert L. Stevenson, Ph.D., is Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org