How do we pave the path to creativity in science?

On Tuesday evening I went to a discussion at the British Academy entitled ‘The Creative Process – A Multidisciplinary Examination’. This is one of a series of three discussions which will focus on the role of the creative process in the sciences, the humanities and the arts in turn.

“Much is talked about the importance of the Creative Process in the development of ideas and research, but how much do we actually know about what it entails? How do approaches to it differ across and within disciplines?  What can academics working in different disciplines learn about the creative process from other fields? And how can the creative process best be nurtured?”

The speakers talked about some very creative, and highly successful, collaborations that they had been involved in, which had brought traditional sciences and other disciplines together. However, the question of how we stimulate more creativity was never really addressed.

Everyone agreed that science is just as creative as other fields, and that levels of creativity were higher when the ‘right people came together at the right time’ (meaning a combination of people being open to ideas, eager to explore areas outside of their comfort zone and willing to just ‘give it a go’). However, all the anecdotes used during the evening demonstrated that bringing the right people together was highly dependent on luck. In fact, the new collaborative group which I co-founded, the Design Science Research Group, owes its existence to a chance meeting (and a few of gin and tonics!). When I asked the panel how they would suggest we generate more of these serendipitous meetings I got a few blank looks.

Professor John Sloboda, who is chairing all three discussions, mentioned that more could be done to encourage inter-disciplinary mixing within institutions. I definitely agree with this. There are anecdotes which show that this has beneficial outcomes. Back in 2009 I had the opportunity to film at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge with Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. At one point during the filming day he took the crew to the small café at the top of the building. He explained that, at lunches and tea breaks, undergrads, post docs and professors mingle freely and exchange ideas there. The LMB has a long list of researchers and alumni who have been awarded a Nobel Prize and many people suggest that this very social café, which has led to some creative collaborations over the years, has played a huge part in this.

However, although this kind of mingling should be encouraged more, I put this to you; how do we make more serendipitous meetings which lead creative and successful collaborations  happen outside of institutions?

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