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Where does creativity fit into science? – Research programs

February 26, 2013
light bulb tiny This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Where does creativity fit into science? series. See them all here.

Imagine you are a scientist and you’re at a stage where you need to think about where your research is going. Perhaps you are just about to embark on a scientific career; or you’ve taken up a new leadership position; or your long-term research program has come to its end. Where to now? How can you use your creative abilities to come up with a new, productive direction?

Shrewd choice of a problem or problem area is often the key to success in research, and is widely regarded as one of the most creative of all the scientific talents.

John Ziman, British physicist and philosopher, 2000.

Developing a worthwhile research program demands creativity

I’ve come across people who believe that doing science involves plodding along well-worn paths, applying the same old formulaic methods to each problem until a solution is reached. That might be true of some routine scientific tasks, but it’s not the way great discoveries are made – they require originality and imagination.

In science, priority counts for a lot. The team that’s first to make an important discovery earns much prestige. And often, the state of knowledge in a field is such that any of a number of pioneering teams could be first. It seems to me that the team that comes up with the most creative research program is likely to have a distinct advantage. So there’s plenty of scope for scientists to be creative in deciding what direction their research is heading.

I can’t presume to describe how to be creative. I can simply try to illustrate that creativity has been (and will continue to be) important. Scientists have always used foresight, imagination and divergent thinking to develop innovative lines of research. The examples below are intended to illuminate the diversity of this process.


  • The biologist Lynn Margulis developed the endosymbiotic theory, which proposes that the organelles of present-day eukaryotic cells developed  from separate types of prokaryotic cells which were engulfed by the precursors of the eukaryotic cells. This was a startlingly unorthodox idea when she first proposed it 1966, and it was accepted only after many years of dogged persistence by Margulis. She describes her motivation in the early days in John Brockman’s Curious Minds:

Although the idea that the nucleus was central became dogma after the discovery of DNA’s role in replication and heredity, a curious observer such as I was – encouraged and trained to read the authentic authorities but also to think for herself – was struck by the fascinating exceptions.

My interests in the margins of the cell were complemented by reading interests in the margins of biology. There I found that my predecessors – some of them, like the American Ivan Wallin, maligned and ignored, and others, such as Konstantin Merezhkovsky, taken seriously, but only in the Soviet Union – had previously postulated that the organelles had evolved from bacteria that became trapped in the larger cells. Their independent evolutionary origin was behind their stubborn tendency to reproduce out of synchrony with the rest of the cell, and to do so like bacteria.

This was a revelation, one that tied together the many observations of nonnuclear inheritance.

  • Theoretical neuroscientist Larry Abbott, quoted in Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance, describes how he chooses “precisely where along the frontier of ignorance I want to work.”:

“You know that if you are too risky in your research you’ll get nothing done. Or you can play it safe and reap rewards for doing essentially the same thing over and over again,” but that’s really not getting much done and “you have to force yourself not to do that.” You have to find the “stuff that pushes the edges for you,” and to do that you have to be honest and say, “What can I personally tackle?” “Also you have to know the times you live in. Is there enough information for me to make progress here? When do you yourself say you’re not going to be able to solve this?” “So you have to introspect and that’s the good part. But you have to guess too, and you could guess wrong. There are no guarantees.”

  • Climate modeller Gavin Schmidt recently blogged (here) about the advice he gave to a graduate embarking on a scientific career. Part of this advice was:

One of the things I appreciated most in finding my niche was being exposed to a very large number of topics – which while bewildering at the start, in the end allowed me to see the gaps where I could be most useful. At all times though, I pursued approaches and topics that were somewhat aesthetically pleasing to me, which is to say, I didn’t just take up problems just for the sake of it.

I’ve found that I get more satisfaction from focusing on making some progress related to big problems, rather than finding complete solutions to minor issues, but this probably differs from person to person.

John Ziman’s quote is from Real Science, p 184
The Aha! Cartoon Postcard is by scienceandmath.
Lynn Margulis’ quote is from John Brockman,  Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, p 106 and p 108
Larry Abbott’s quote is from Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How It Drives Science, p 136

Updated: 2013/08/28

light bulb tiny This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Where does creativity fit into science? series. See them all here.
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