Highly Creative Individuals?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 6, 2009 11:06 am

The fourth panelist from the STS conference was Reynold Galope from Georgia State and Georgia Tech.  His talk was entitled: Defining a Comparison Sample to Measure the Effect of Institutional Factors on Highly Creative Scientific Research: Issues and Options

Reynold is involved in the CREA Project which aims to identify the factors that contribute to fostering highly creative researchers:

The CREA Project is a large-scale international research program that aims to understand the environmental and institutional factors and mechanisms which can stimulate and support scientists to accomplish highly-creative breakthrough research. There is a body of work on scientific creativity – which is defined as “novel work with major implications or potential accomplished by individual researchers and groups” – but most of it is focused on the characteristics of the individual researcher (micro level) or indicators of national activity (macro level). In contrast, our research focuses on “meso” level attributes such as career mobility, sequence of career choices, properties of organizations, and patterns of research funding awards. These factors are ones that research sponsors, institutions, and research groups can and do influence. Indeed, there is a growing policy and research management interest about how best to foster creative and transformational scientific research.

The first stage of this project identified 76 highly creative researchers (HCRs) in human genetics and nanoscience based on peer-nomination and prize awards.  Reynold and his colleagues are now interested to compare this HCR collective to a comparison group of researchers.  They would like to understand what fosters highly creative research defined by:

Novelty. In order for research to qualify as “creative”, it needs to go beyond current knowledge, it needs to be new and unexpected; and

High-quality and usefulness. Creative work is usually associated with an exceptional and extraordinary level of quality and appropriateness for a given problem.

The aim to operationalize this definition and translate it in a way that makes it ‘approachable for empirical research of creative science‘. However, I’m not sure whether methodology is appropriate.

First, I immediately noticed that 70 out of the 76 individuals identified in the original study were male.  Surely there are social factors that limit the achievements being considered to qualify ‘highly creative‘ individuals–especially women.  I’m also still not clear what defines ‘highly creative research‘. The awards considered during the selection process are distributed for a variety of reasons along a broad spectrum so it seems unfair to standardize this as a defining criteria.  Furthermore, and arguably most important: Many hypotheses are not successful and thus, not recognized in the literature, but do take a an extremely creative approach.  It’s often these risk-takers that make breakthroughs rather than peers using more conventional approaches.  And while sometimes they succeed, many times they do not.  I’m reminded of Thomas Edison’s famous line:

225px-thomas_edison.jpgGenius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

It seems to me that the HCR definition does not account for all of those perspiring among us. But with that I’m going to step back from being critical given the research attempts to answer some very intriguing questions.

Do readers have alternative suggestions to identify highly creative individuals? What factors to you think most contribute to fostering this kind of research?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Science Workforce

Comments (5)

  1. One thing that can foster this kind of research is by realizing that being wrong (inaccurate) is not the same as doing wrong (immoral). From grade one through the end of a bachelor’s degree you get points for being right and lose them for being wrong. It’s as if we’re trying to reward the least creative among us. Creative thinking, especially in science, involves being wrong most of the time.

    The problem this creates is that we need to separate when people are wrong because they’re lazy from when they’re wrong because they’re trying something new. It can be hard to distinguish the two which is why it’s easier to simply lump the two together.

  2. I don’t really understand the term “highly creative researchers.” Is there a distinction made between “highly creative” and, say, “somewhat creative”? How would people like Edison or Darwin rate….”super-ultra-creative”? Should a person’s creativity outside of science be used as an indicator? Maybe we should read through the peer-reviewed literature and find the most important works whose methods/hypotheses rely on the least number of previous resources. I personally feel that creativity is too transient of a phenomenon to standardize. Also, not all researchers have the same access to an environment/project/boss that fosters creative thought. Since this doesn’t have anything to do with that researcher’s creativity, I have to wonder if those 76 researchers are a good representation of creativity in nanoscience and human genetics, let alone science in general.

  3. Callinectes

    Sheril, you would probably find this very interesting, your post reminded me of something I saw recently… Elizabeth Gilbert at this year’s Ted Talks on the subject of creative genius. http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html Granted, she’s talking about artists, but there’s a lesson in there for all creative processes. I think successful highly creative individuals never stop trying; like beauty, creativity is in the eye of the beholder.

  4. I believe there are some standard tests for creativity, like asking someone to list how many things they can do with a paperclip in a set amount of time. I’ve heard Sir Ken Robinson talk about these sorts of things in some of his interviews. I am not sure how such measure would relate to scientific creativity, though.

    Discussing scientific creativity now is interesting, given that Science magazine featured stories about robots making scientific discoveries. Were they creative robots?

  5. stimulate and support scientists to accomplish highly-creative breakthrough research.

    Management is about process not product. There is no aspect of the grant funding process that does not penalize the young, the heterodox, the creative, the risk non-aversive, the obsessed, the unprecedented, the insubordinate. ALL discovery is in subordination. Fund young faculty. You have purchased precisely what you have specified – elderly men with zero-risk business plans and PERT charts, most of it summing to hamster wheels. Why are you complaining?

    Do left and right shoes violate the Equivalence Principle? Do single crystal test masses of enantiomorphic space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21 quartz, or cinnabar, or belinite, or tellurium, or selenium… violate the Equivalence Principle? No EP test since Galileo and Stevin in the late 1500s has given a net non-null output. Physics will NEVER perform a parity Eotvos experiment because (1) there is no precedent, and (2) it might give a null output. The only risk being avoided is a risk of success.

    I’m also still not clear what defines ‘highly creative research‘’

    Highly creative research embarrasses tenured faculty. Start with Maxwell in 1860 and go forward. Every seminal event revealed experts to be fools. You don’t believe it? That is why you fail.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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