'The Creativity Crisis'

Author discusses new book on the flaws in American science -- and the ways that government agencies and universities support it.

February 10, 2015

By some measures -- Nobel Prizes over time, graduate programs the best students globally aspire to be part of -- American science is the envy of the world. But Roberta A. Ness sees an erosion of excellence. In The Creativity Crisis: Reinventing Science to Unleash Possibility (Oxford University Press), Ness argues that American science has become too risk averse and that frugal federal agencies and university politics and policies combine in ways that discourage breakthrough discoveries.

Ness -- author of 350 scientific papers or books -- is dean of the School of Public Health and vice president for innovation at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston. She answered questions about her book via e-mail.

Q: With discoveries announced all the time, it may hard for some to think there is a "creativity crisis." Why do you see such a crisis?

A: Technological inventions are, indeed, advancing with mind-boggling speed. However, science and technology do not appear to be finding original solutions to society’s greatest threats -- threats that if not resolved will traumatize planet Earth and all its inhabitants. Affordable clean energy remains an aspiration unattained; current fuel sources, most scientists argue, have wrought climate extremes and endangered species. Alzheimer’s disease, a scourge that affects 5.3 million in the U.S. and costs $172 billion, has no cure in sight. Science has also done little to crack the problems of emerging infections, water scarcity, cancer and obesity. It is not that science is neglecting these issues; simply that our approaches to them are too often uninspired.

Q: What impact do you see from tighter budgets for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation?

A: In times of resource constraint, funding agencies become conservative. This makes them less likely to support potentially disruptive, high-risk research. Funding agencies have already moved toward translational projects that will deliver quick and sure-bet results with some (typically evolutionary) impact. Monies directed toward more basic understanding, which generates most revolutionary advances, are drying up.

Q: You write critically of the way tenure decisions value individual (as opposed to group) progress. Why is that problematic?

A: Crowdsourcing -- democratic idea generation over the Web, is one of the most disruptive innovations of our time. Academia cannot readily access this engine since it does not credit individuals. The need to establish ownership of ideas makes it difficult for investigators to commit to group science and to citizen science.

Q: Are there structures in university life that discourage the kind of creativity you would like to see?

A: There are so many that I had to write a book about it! Barriers to innovation range from excessive rules and regulations to a hierarchical sociology that limits inclusiveness and openness. To find out more and see some suggestions as to what to do about these hurdles, you'll have to read the book.

Q: You note that many would-be science innovators envy those who work at Google (or certain other companies). What could universities adopt from Google and other corporations that promote creativity?

A: Many of the high-tech companies put a premium on innovation, and they put their money where their mouth is, for instance in allowing employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time "doing their own thing." They also allow for some degree of open-source invention and they value team approaches.


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