Creativity in research

This is a note sent to several UK research funding bodies in connection with my concerns that we are now just going through the motions , rather than driving really breathtaking research. I’ve seen this described recently as the difference between hypothesis-  vs curiosity- driven work. Now that we have a culture in which grants have to be big, for reasons of career progression, everything is locked into risk aversion and genuinely new ideas are frozen out by a bureaucracy that has never had an idea.  Next stop, economic stagnation.  Naturally, I’m still waiting for any kind of meaningful response…


Thanks again for making the time for our conversation last week. Here are my suggestions regarding enhancing research creativity. I’d be very grateful if you could direct them to the most appropriate recipients.

As I mentioned, I’m particularly interested in intellectual creativity, having been focused on research funding/commercialisation, generating intellectual property(1) and associated entrepreneurship training(2) for about 15 years.

When I was a research student in Neurophysiology, my supervisor, the late Prof FW Campbell, FRS, instilled in me the idea of research excellence. As well as needing to be original and professionally performed, our work had to be potentially transformative (ie offering the strong possibility of emergent discovery) (3).

As research projects have tended to become fewer and larger, so the tension between efficiency and creativity, as described eg by Bob Sutton at Stanford (4), has become more apparent. There is now huge pressure on academics to deliver research projects, and PhDs, by the most reliable routes. This is especially true in situations where industrial funding is involved and the crucial division between exploratory research and hypothesis testing (or even product development) may become blurred.

I’m increasingly concerned, therefore, that truly creative, exploratory work is being de-emphasised -even in some research groups with a strong track record of winning funding. This shows itself particularly in the way that research supervisors tend to select doctoral students based on

–undergraduate record (despite much evidence that the best qualified scholars are rarely the most gifted researchers)
–similarity between supervisor and prospective student
–the comparative ease of hiring a recent graduate from the supervisor’s institution/department.

There may be many ways to remedy this situation. I’m committed to helping somehow, given that our economic (and cultural) future relies on not just accepting the established practices. Most of the following suggestions apply to doctoral candidates, but might also be extended to other members of the research community (the vulnerable position of postdocs also needs urgent attention). I would suggest that we need to

–recruit people taking into account established measures of their individual creativity. The PhD degree will require them to show evidence of original research. I don’t believe that this only means avoiding duplication.
–select people from other institutions and backgrounds. The tendency to form intellectual monocultures is understandable, but groupthink is deeply counterproductive.
–establish incentives to hire such individuals (think Francis Crick(5)). E.g. provide automatic micro-grants directly to chosen PhD candidates to guarantee some autonomy of thought and resource management experience.
–offer doctoral candidates creative mentors, deliberately from other disciplines…even perhaps non-university disciplines. (I contributed in this way to the EPIS scheme at Edinburgh University. A similar arrangement could be established for junior researchers).
–rethink the way that student intellectual property is now frequently being assigned, in advance of its creation, to the host university. This seems to me to be unfair, unnecessarily expedient and demotivating for the brightest minds.

These measures would, I believe, help to generate more diversity and self directedness among doctoral candidates, especially now that cohort training is becoming the norm. Individually, these researchers need to be able to identify their motivation: what *burning questions* are they determined to answer?

Yours sincerely,

(3) P. Andrews and F. Campbell, “Images at the blind spot”, Nature, vol. 353, pp.308, 1991.