Epistasis Blog

From the Computational Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania (www.epistasis.org)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fostering Innovation in a University Setting

I was asked today by another faculty member what universities can do foster innovative research. Innovation is usually defined as the act of introducing something new [e.g. Dictionary.com]. According to Wikipedia, innovation may be incremental, radical or revolutionary and is different than invention in that is represents an idea that has been successfully applied to some problem. My own personal opinion is that 'significant' innovation is usually characterized by a 'radical' new approach to a particular problem. In molecular biology, PCR was truly innovative because it allowed investigators to pursue new and important research questions that were otherwise not feasible. However, I don't see the many incremental derivatives of PCR (e.g. rtPCR) as innovative because they are all fundamentally based on the same innovative idea.

What can universities do to foster innovation from their faculty? Here are some initial ideas. Send me your suggestions. I will update this list over the next few days.

1) Provide recurring discretionary money. Unfortunately, the NIH peer-review system does not encourage or reward innovative thinking. Most research proposals that are funded by the NIH are those that present incremental advances on previous ideas. Using the molecular biology example from above, a grant proposing to develop PCR would have a much harder time getting funded than a grant proposing to develop rtPCR once PCR had already been established. It is much easier to convince your peers that an incremental advance on an existing idea will work than a new idea. Conventional wisdom says that you need to have 1/4 to 1/2 the research already done to convince the NIH reviewers that you can actually do the work. By that time, the idea is no longer innovative. An important way universities can foster innovative research is to provide talented faculty with recurring discretionary funds that they can use to pursue the kind of innovative ideas that the NIH doesn't typically fund. The best way to do this is to establish endowed chairs that return 90% or more of the interest back to the investigator. Some universities do this and some do not.

2) Require or encourage faculty to take sabbaticals at other universities. I am a firm believer that innovation is stimulated by a change in scenery. Universities should require and pay their faculty to take short sabbaticals (e.g. one month) at least once every two years and long sabbaticals (6-12 months) every five years. Ideally sabbaticals would be taken at other universities where the investigator would get exposed to new faculty and new research environments. Our ability to innovate is significantly influenced by our local environment. Alternatively, the short sabbatical could be replaced by hosting visiting professors for one month. No university official has ever recommended that I take a sabbatical of any kind.

3) Require or encourage faculty to attend multiple scientific conferences. Departments and centers should encourage their faculty to attend at least 4-5 scientific conferences each year in a diversity of different disciplines. Those of us in biomedical research should be attending conferences in economics or meteorology in addition to cell biology and genetics. Innovation often comes from seeing how others solve complex problems. Knowing the state of the art in your own field only encourages incremental science. This could be facilitated by the department or institution paying for their faculty to attend one conference per year that is in a radically different discipline.

4) Require or encourage graduate students to take courses in other disciplines. Graduate students can be a wonderful source of innovation and we need to provide them with the same opportunities for stimulating creative thought. One way to do this is to require them to take a course in a completely different area of their choosing and give them graduate level credit for it. For example, a graduate student in cell biology could take a course in graduate level course in music, psychology, art or economics. Allowing a graduate student to be innovative greatly influences the level of innovation in the research lab as a whole. I require all my students to take at least one year of additional coursework in a different area. One of my students is working on a Ph.D. in Genetics and doing an M.S. in Computer Science at the same time. This ensures they can speak multiple languages and also ensures there is a constant flow of new ideas back to the lab.

5) Provide institutional recognition for innovative research. It is critical that faculty who successfully develop innovative ideas are appropriately rewarded. This can come in the form of promotion, annual awards from the institution, additional discretionary research dollars or salary increases, for example. The challenge of course is knowing when an innovative idea has been developed and then proactively recognizing it. Institutions should not wait until an innovative faculty member threatens to leave to provide recognition.


At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Steve Shervais said...

WRT point 1, that's one reason why DARPA has been so successful - they fund the long shots. I've heard it said that they don't fund projects that have a high probability of success, because those kinds of projects can get funding anywhere.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous John said...

Universities reward originality, but not innovation. They reward grants and papers, but not the work it takes to carry an idea to the point that it changes what people do: writing expository articles, writing high-quality software, marketing, etc. Either universities need to change how they evaluate faculty -- good luck with that -- or they need non-faculty employees to do much of the hard work of making innovation happen.

At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

OK, I will be curmudgeony. Why these points won't work:

1). Where does the money actually come from? Despite what many people think, Universities are not full of money and it would be hard to endow every faculty member. If not everyone, then choices have to be made. How will that be done, probably by an NIH-style committee, which defeats the purpose.

2). Great, except that if you have an active research program and/or have some administrative duties, it can be nearly impossible to extract yourself enough to take a real sabbatical. You might be able to physically get away for a month, but you won't get away from the responsibilities and worries.

3). Again, with an active research program there are already too many conferences to go to. Adding 4-5 more is a real time sink. Also, where does this travel money come from?

4). Most students have a hard enough time getting their primary research straight, let alone have time to muck around in a foreign area. Might work for a rare student.

5). Again with the money. Recognition is great, but as you point out, how is it judged and recognized? Most Universities have committees for their awards, made up of old codgers with narrow viewpoints...gee, just like NIH!


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