scientific studies

[OPINION] Creativity and innovation in scientific research

Faustino Icatlo Jr
[OPINION] Creativity and innovation in scientific research
'Creativity does not develop in a vacuum. It calls for a researcher in a real-world setting being enabled to evolve creativity skills by a host of external factors.'

Experts maintain that creativity begins with a foundation of knowledge, learning a discipline, and mastering a way of thinking. Further, that one can learn to be creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using imagination, and synthesizing information. It is said that the more training you have and the more diverse the training, the greater would be your potential for creative output.

Having conducted biomedical research at the workbench level in both private and government laboratories, I have had the opportunity to observe first-hand certain conditions that to my mind are some of the factors that drive creativity and innovation in the workplace. It is my hope that sharing some curated insights on this topic will help our scientists, research administrators, and science policymakers focus on improving the quality of our research output.

Given that creativity is learnable, it is therefore something personal, self-driven up to a certain extent, and can be subjected to influences from the environment as it obviously involves external forces to evolve. Thus, it can be said that a creative and innovative mindset comes about as a product of interplay between the “Self” and its external enablers, specifically those coming from or exerted by the research institution (hereafter referred to as “Institutional Factors”), and the “Government” with its overarching authority and influence over research and academic institutions, both government and private.

For purposes of this discussion, the Self Factor refers to a person’s inherent personal attributes, background achievements and internal motivators. The Institutional Factors encompass the physical facilities and equipment of a research or academic entity as well as its policies, administrative, and value systems. The Government refers to the entire administrative, legislative, and executive machinery of the government. It serves as the supreme strategist, first-mover/leader, investor, resources consolidator, and overall enabler of technological development on a nationwide scope.

The Self Factors

A backdrop of quality education, training, or track record – People with relevant and sterling academic or employment background or track record are preferential starting “materials” for doing creative research.

A hands-on work ethic – It is common observation that no scientist has reached high levels of achievement in his field without having invested thousands of hours slogging hands-on at the bench.

Age – Since young researchers are usually more impressionable and with generally more opportunities for career development, research institutions should focus on expanding the number of slots for promising researchers within the 20+ and 30+ age groups in terms of post-graduate education or training in critical foundational disciplines preparatory to their pursuit of independent research goals.

A singular passion for science – That “fire in one’s belly” fueling the passion to pursue and achieve one’s goals, coupled with a healthy curiosity, is a product of a person’s natural bent modulated by his environment. This comprises the basic platform for cultivating creativity and fitness for research work. To be a science achiever, one need not be intellectually exceptional. From my own observations, one only needs an average intellect with an outside-the-box mindset, an extraordinary patience, and the drive to excel guided by an abundance of common sense.

Cultivating that downtime habit – Habitually setting aside a time to think in a quiet place away from sensory distractions and pressures can be a way to explore those subtle or yet unseen inter-nexuses between ideas and observations.

The Institutional Factors

Intellectual cultivation through post-graduate training and education – A carefully crafted specialized training and education program for technical staff is a sine qua non in any research institution under current Philippine conditions. A researcher’s lack of specialized training generally results in a narrow latitude of conceptual space with which to explore and formulate novel ideas. The mind is a vine as it were, while technological know-how (product of intellectual preparation and cultivation) serves as a pre-constructed lattice on which the mind climbs up to yield fruits of creativity and innovation. No lattice, no creative output. This analogy resonates with the idea that creativity begins with a foundational knowledge. Hence, the oft repeated saying that serendipitous science favors the properly prepared mind.

Maximizing opportunities for learning, formulating or validating theories and assumptions – The institution should encourage attendance at scientific meetings and conferences whenever applicable (especially now that there is a boom in online venues) where one can interact with peers who may provide original narratives or valuable information on latest concepts and methods not yet found in the literature. Oral presentation or publication of treatises in journals are adjunctive tools wherein experts on relevant subjects may help validate or improve the science behind one’s research.

Strategic alliances with external institutions – Collaboration between the academia and industry is the norm in industrialized countries for developing novel products. Similar collaborations, rarely seen in the Philippines, should be expanded across industrial sectors.

State-of-the-art “hard” research components (facility, equipment, and non-consumables) – If trainings are state-of-the-art, research infrastructures should likewise be state-of-the-art. The institution’s role in providing updated facilities and equipment in sync with human resources development is essential. Without adequate facilities and equipment, we cannot even begin to talk about conducting research, let alone creativity.

Access to “soft” research components (or consumable materials and information resources) – Creativity should translate ideas into reality but this is not possible when there are inadequate or no real materials such as reagents and consumables to work with. On the other hand, quick availability of materials and information for proof-of-concept exploration of innovative ideas enables speedy generation of data that can build up momentum and enthusiasm which are jumping boards toward creativity and innovation.

Promoting self-learning through hands-on studies – The information bonanza enabled by the digital age has now made self-learning possible using online scientific journals, lab protocols or monographs. Navigating through technical challenges under this condition ramps up creativity and encourages homegrown technology. Preferably, a mentor should be available to guide the researcher along this learning pathway.

An autonomous space in project management – Institutions should provide researchers with autonomy in technical and administrative matters that directly impact the quality of research output. When a researcher is free as a bird, he/she tends to be more creative. With freedom, you tend to push your own technological boundaries that can open doors to discoveries.

A streamlined procurement process in government-funded projects. Our current procurement process for government-funded R&D projects has been a terrible damper for any enthusiastic researcher. Much efforts should be expended toward overhauling the current time-consuming procurement system that prevents timely response to public health emergencies. Importantly, legal hurdles in direct procurement of materials available only from abroad should be brought to the attention of science policy makers and legislators.

A contingency fund for exploring serendipitous R&D outcomes – Breakthroughs can happen unexpectedly and are best verified immediately to sustain momentum and to maximize available time especially among post-graduate students in their last year of studies. Hence, budgetary flexibility may come across as a crucial boost to creativity. This is quite difficult if not impossible under the current government funding system.

Adopting a private enterprise mentality by government institutions – Except for orphan drug development and similar cases where public health and well-being supersede profitability objectives, government institutions must also have the intuition of venture capitalists and marketing entities when conceptualizing novel products or processes.

An affirmative personnel management policy – The longer a person works on a research topic, the greater his chances for generating ground-breaking studies. Long job tenures are usually tied to a healthy work setting, but less so in a toxic environment. We cannot expect creativity to flourish among researchers who are demoralized due to long–standing work-related issues such as work-life imbalance, inequitable policies, lack of training, etc. On the other hand, a highly competitive compensation package, tokens of appreciation or perks conferred according to actual merits can boost confidence, rapport with peers and superiors, self-esteem, length of tenure, and with it, creativity.

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The Government

It is hard to overestimate the critical role of the government as the first mover in technology development. With the generally very low level of interest in technology investment and entrepreneurial science literacy among Filipino investors and businesses, the government by default assumes the role of first mover in encouraging investments in technology products by interconnecting various stakeholders (investors, manufacturers, or policymakers on one hand and individual researchers or research groups/institutions on the other hand) into a stable and productive partnership. Absent these cross-industry collaborations, all innovative breakthroughs in science, no matter how brilliant, would amount to naught as they could not be brought to their ultimate endpoints such as incorporation into institutional policies and practices, adoption by the general public, or development into commercial products and processes beneficial to humanity.

The past several decades has seen an obsolescent science policy by the national government that allocates an infinitesimal annual R&D budget that is out of sync with the rapid pace of technological advancements elsewhere in the world and the needs of our economy. It is a fact that the Philippines ranks as one of the lowest R&D spenders in the world. Without urgent fiscal and institutional reforms by the Government moving forward, most of the critical innovation drivers as outlined above to stimulate creativity in science and technology will not be realizable.

Nevertheless, allocating enough research funds does not automatically equate with generating creative research. Rather, it is the confluence of the foregoing sets of factors that, to my mind, together create a milieu conducive to creative thinking and innovations. Because we live in an imperfect world, all the critical determinants of creativity may not be present all the time. But one can reasonably expect that when more of those factors are thrown in and sustained over time, the more favorable the environment becomes for innovative science.

Evolution of the creative mind

Creativity does not develop in a vacuum. It calls for a researcher in a real-world setting being enabled to evolve creativity skills by a host of external factors. But fostering creativity is not a one-off business where one can set up the enabling conditions and then wait until something good happens. Given that creativity is a time-bound concept, a researcher’s mind must be carefully nurtured over time. Uneven funding and logistical support, patchy career development programs, and workplace policy issues are examples of undesirable disruptors to creativity. The temporal journey to scientific breakthroughs may take years if not abbreviated by serendipities. The endpoint of this evolutionary journey is when a researcher finally applies his finely-honed intellectual and technological toolsets to unlock a portal to discovery. – Rappler.com

Dr. Faustino Icatlo Jr. is a former Senior Research Scientist in a Japanese biotech company. He is currently working on COVID-19 diagnostics for human use at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, and on an African Swine Fever antibody project at De La Salle University. The author can be reached at: icatlotino@yahoo.com

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