Creative Scientist Workshop Fosters Biomedical Science Innovation

Published May 15, 2013

A group of medical faculty has organized a creativity workshop focused on boosting innovation in biomedical science and helping researchers acquire grants promoting unconventional research.

“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, PhD
SUNY Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics

“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,” says Michael E. Cain, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “This workshop helps us achieve these objectives.”

The workshop, The Creative Scientist: a Dialogue on Breaking Out of the Box, took place June 10-11.

Supporting Innovative Research

The National Institutes of Health uses innovation as a criterion for awarding grants and has launched the Transformative Research (TR01) award program to promote high-risk or unconventional research that could potentially overturn fundamental paradigms.

One of the workshop’s goals is to enhance the potential of scientists to be competitive for TR01 as well as other substantive extramural awards. It will feature four winners of the TR01 awards.

Workshop organizers have asked the award winners to talk about innovation and how they get their ideas instead of discussing their research.

“For anyone thinking about applying for a TR01, this workshop will be a goldmine,” emphasizes Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and the principal workshop organizer.

The workshop also will include speakers who are national leaders in the science of creativity and contextual and environmental factors that may influence creativity.

Blurring Distinction Between “Scientists,” “Creatives”

The interactive workshop aims to help researchers find conditions that cultivate originality and imaginativeness.

“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?” says Epstein.

Larry W. Hawk Jr., PhD, a co-organizer of the event, says he hopes the workshop helps blur the distinction between the “scientists” and the “creatives” in the service of solving important problems.

“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,” comments Hawk, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Creativity Essential to Advances in Science

Despite popular conceptions suggesting that scientists rely solely on facts and proof, creativity and innovation have always been central to major advances in biomedical science.

However, the overwhelming majority of scientists receive no formal training on how to identify or promote creativity, says Epstein.

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

Additionally, some forces work against promoting innovation in science. “Especially when funding lines are tight, 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,’” says Timothy F. Murphy, MD, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research. “It almost squelches innovation.”

“The creativity we once had has been largely trained out of us,” adds Hawk.

Multiple Perspectives Stimulate Innovation

One of the best ways to foster innovation is to bring together different perspectives from people trained in different disciplines, explains Murphy, who is also SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine.

Each month, workshop co-organizer Steven J. Fliesler, PhD, brings together people from all over the university to share ideas and help overcome obstacles in vision and eye research. Fleisler is the Meyer H. Riwchun Endowed Chair and Professor and vice chair and director of research in ophthalmology.

“You can hit a brick wall and then someone with another perspective says, ‘I know how to get you halfway there,’” says Fliesler, who is also a research health scientist at the Buffalo VA Medical Center.

“You get these synergies you never would expect.”

Workshop Funded by SUNY Grant and UB

The creativity and innovation workshop, open to biomedical researchers within and outside of the State University of New York (SUNY), is being funded through a competitive SUNY Conversations in the Disciplines grant and the following UB sponsors:

  • School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
  • School of Public Health and Health Professions
  • Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development
  • College of Arts and Sciences