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'Creative Scientist' workshop focuses on boosting innovation

 Creative scientist

Showing evidence of innovation in grant applications is key to winning National Institutes of Health research funding, organizers of the creative scientist workshop say. Photo: Douglas Levere

By ELLEN GOLDBAUM

Published April 11, 2013

“We want to know, is there a particular environment that lends itself to risk-taking and innovation, and how can we create that at UB?”
Leonard H. Epstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor
Department of Pediatrics

Creative scientist. To the general public, those words don’t belong together. Conventional wisdom suggests that scientists rely on facts and proof, not creativity. And creativity has not typically been part of a scientist’s training.

But creativity and innovation always have been central to major advances in biomedical science. The National Institutes of Health uses innovation as a criterion for awarding grants. NIH also recently launched the Transformative Research (TR01) award program to promote exceptionally innovative, high-risk or unconventional research that has the “potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms.”

For that reason, a group of faculty members UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has organized a creativity and innovation workshop, “The Creative Scientist: A Dialogue on Breaking Out of the Box,” which will take place June 10-11 in the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center, 2402 North Forest Road, Getzville. Registration and information are available on the workshop’s website.

“In addition to providing faculty with all the tools necessary to achieve success in their grant applications, the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences also wants to provide optimal mentored-research training programs to prepare and enable the next generation of scientists and physician-scientists to acquire competitive grant funds from NIH and other research sponsors,” says Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the UB medical school. “A hallmark of grant proposals that will be funded is clear evidence of innovation in research hypotheses, experimental approaches and applicability to human health and disease. This workshop helps us achieve these objectives.”

The creativity and innovation workshop is being funded through a competitive SUNY Conversations in the Disciplines grant and by UB.

Open to biomedical researchers within and outside of SUNY, this interactive workshop will feature four winners of Transformative Research, or TR01, awards.

“We told the TR01 winners that we didn’t want them to talk about their research,” says Leonard H. Epstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Pediatrics and principle workshop organizer. “Instead, we asked them to talk about innovation and how they get their ideas. For anyone thinking about applying for a TR01, this workshop will be a goldmine.”

The workshop also will include speakers who are national leaders in the science of creativity and contextual and environmental factors that may influence creativity. The goal is to enhance the potential of scientists to be competitive for TR01, as well as other substantive extramural awards.

“We want to know, is there a particular environment that lends itself to risk-taking and innovation, and how can we create that at UB?” Epstein says. “There’s a lot of interest on the part of neurobiologists and others in how you get to that ‘aha!’ moment. You almost never get there when you are trying to. And the overwhelming majority of scientists receive no formal training in how to identify or promote creativity.”

That explains the typical orientation of biomedical scientists toward what Epstein and colleagues call “incremental science,” which results in systematic, yet incremental, extensions of previous research, not the source of innovation or new paradigms.

“The creativity we once had has been largely trained out of us,” says Larry W. Hawk Jr., another workshop co-organizer and associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The risk-averse, business-as-usual model that is typical of academia maintains this pattern, reinforcing short-term outcomes like high rates of publication and new grant funding,” he continues. “My hope is that, with the help of this workshop, UB will become a central place for advancing the science of creativity and engaging all disciplines at UB, blurring the distinction between the ‘scientists’ and the ‘creatives’ in the service of solving important problems.”

But while NIH is promoting innovation in biomedical science, Timothy F. Murphy, UB senior associate dean for clinical and translational research, cautions that some forces are also working against it.

“Especially when funding lines are tight,” he says, “people tend to do a lot of safe science and to stay away from anything that might make reviewers think, ‘this is a bit out there.’ It almost squelches innovation.”

Murphy says that one of the best ways to foster innovation is to bring together different perspectives from people trained in different disciplines.

“People get tunnel vision,” agrees Steven J. Fliesler, who also is a workshop co-organizer and the Meyer H. Riwchun Endowed Chair and professor, vice chair and director of research in the Department of Ophthalmology, Ross Eye Institute. So he runs a monthly meeting where he brings together people from all over the university to share ideas and help overcome obstacles, particularly in vision and eye research.

“You can hit a brick wall and then someone with another perspective says, ‘I know how to get you halfway there,’” says Fliesler. “You get these synergies you never would expect.”

In addition to the SUNY Conversations in the Disciplines funding, UB sponsors of the Creative Scientist conference are the medical school, the School of Public Health and Health Professions, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, the College of Arts and Sciences and the departments of Medicine, Pediatrics and Psychology.