Increasing Innovation in Science: A Conversation with Dr. Roberta Ness

Internationally renowned physician and scientist Roberta Ness has recently published Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2012). Dr. Ness is Dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health and Vice President for Innovation at the University of Texas – Houston. Recently she spoke with the Wing of Zock.

Wing of Zock: At first I thought the title of your book, Innovation Generation, referred to a group of people born at the same time: a generation. But you mean generation as a verb. Do you really believe that innovation is something that can be intentionally generated?

Ness: Yes. Many people misperceive of innovation as something temperamental or dependent on divine inspiration. I wrote this book to show that it can be taught and learned. Some people are definitely more creative, and that temperament is helpful to innovation. But much like music, innovation is the result of training, method, systemization, and practice.

WoZ: What was your inspiration for the book?

Ness: I have taught a class on innovative scientific thinking for the past three years at the University of Texas School of Public Health. In that class, I have observed people changing the way that they think. The graduate students who completed the course improved their creativity test scores by 297 percent.

There is lots in the literature about innovation in business and education. But innovation is the central driving feature of science; we can’t have progress without it. I began to wonder: Why isn’t everyone passionate about developing methodologies for enhancing scientific innovation in students?

WoZ: What is the central idea you hope readers will take away from the book?

Ness: The idea of cognitive frames, which are the expectations or assumptions that guide how you process information and make inferences. It’s a novel concept for many of us; I want readers to realize how constraining these frames can be and how to get out of them. The right tools can help us do this; they can literally change your life.

WoZ: How do frames relate to innovation?

Ness: The first step to innovating is just to identify your frames. Frames aren’t bad; they’re good — they allow us to live seamlessly in a complex society. But in order to innovate, you must learn to reframe your question or challenge in a new way.

WoZ: What else do we need in order to be innovative?

Ness: Metaphors are the linguistic way we refer to our frames. I looked at the mission statements of a lot of scientific organizations; many are along the lines of “we do good for all mankind.” Health care finds itself in the midst of a moral crusade, because lives are at risk. We need to be right in medicine and science, so we are extremely risk-averse. But there’s no innovation without risk.

We need to understand what we’re all about and what that means. Any innovation has a high failure rate at first. We cannot be fearful of failure, but in the biological sciences we are very fearful. To some degree, you can’t eliminate risk—and that has to be acceptable.

WoZ: What surprised you the most in your research?

Ness: The idea of surprise itself, actually. My definition of innovation has changed. It used to be, “creativity with a purpose.” Now, it’s more like “surprise in the service of progress in science.” I learned that what makes something truly innovative is that it is unexpected and surprising. So I think that risk and surprise are two critical elements of innovation.

WoZ: What’s next for you?

Ness: I have been working on a whole series of books about innovation. The second is Innovation Autopsy, in which I go back through history and carefully dissect the processes that led to major innovations. In the third book, Innovation Reinvented, I suggest how we can redesign the academic enterprise to be more inventive.