One of my favourite radio shows, This American Life put out a great episode recently, #450 So Crazy it Just Might Work that reminds me of one of my biggest regrets about scientific research today.
It’s passe now to say that we need to “think outside the box,” but it’s true that the peer-review and research funding systems discourage exploratory thinking and truly innovative research projects. But some amazing things can happen when we think creatively and apply a stubborn mind to faithful repetition. These two things almost sound contradictory, but I think they are the two most essential ingredients to a good researcher (plus a third: asking good questions).
Listen to this episode of This American Life to hear about how two researchers think creatively about killing cancer cells… and their bumpy ride through the difficulties of researching their ideas; hear about how a patient mathematician, Francis Nelson Cole, spent three years of Sundays and a 10-minute silent demonstration to rock the mathematics world.
I think our science would be much further ahead if scientists were required to involve at least one aspect of “non-science” – art, creativity, design, etc. when imagining their research, and if students in research sciences were required to sit behind a research bench like I did in my undergrad, doing PCR rounds over and over again. Forget that this is totally impractical… maybe the stubbornness and creative design each aspect brings would give us more breakthrough scientific innovations.
*You can watch clips of the cancer researchers here.