Fostering scientific innovation, part 1: Impediments to innovation

Folks, I have to make a brief announcement here. I spent the entire weekend working on a grant that's due in a few days. Posts over the weekend (with the exception of Friday's post) were mainly excuses to procrastinate a bit when my brain started hurting from too much writing. I found myself last night wondering what, if anything, I would have time to write for today. I had planned on doing another part in my series about the Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt, but fortunately for my career (although unfortunately for my blog) I was a good boy on Sunday. I spent it trying to pound the grant application into suitable shape for submission, and, by the time I couldn't stand it any more, it was after 1 AM, no time for composing a substantive post. (I should have saved Saturday's post about David Irving for today. The news and commentary would have kept for two days.)

What's worse is that I've always tried to post something substantive on Mondays. I'd feel as if I let you, my readers, down if I didn't post something. (Of course, you realize that this means I have little compunction about not posting substance on other days. It also means that blogging will be relatively light this week. Oh, I'll probably post something every day other than silly Internet quizzes, but chances are that the posts will be much shorter than you're used to. Don't worry, though, I won't turn into an Instapundit-style blogger. In any case, I'll try to make it up to you next week...)

Then I remembered this post. I wrote it back in June and had been meaning to post it since then as a starting point for an occasional series on scientific innovation, what hinders it, and what fosters it. The starting point was a meeting in Philadelphia.

So here goes:

I was sitting in the main hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, taking in the morning session of the U.S. Department of Defense Era of Hope Breast Cancer Research Program Meeting, when I browsed through the program, looking to see what the upcoming keynote speech would be about. Usually, keynote speeches at these conferences are given by distinguished scientists who have made a major contribution to the field, heavy hitters, if you will. This time, instead of seeing someone like Judah Folkman (who was the first to truly appreciate the potential for antiangiogenic therapy) Max Wicha (a major innovator who popularized the concept of breast cancer stem cells) Dennis Slamon (whose work led to the development of Herceptin, which has been a major advance in the therapy of breast cancer that overexpresses Her-2/neu), Gregory Hannon (a major force in double-stranded RNA-induced gene silencing at a young age), or others, the Army chose something different.

I must confess, when I saw the name of a Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who was billed as an expert on "creativity" and "innovation" in business, my first thought was "What the hell?" My second thought was that now would be a fine time to head to the Dunkin' Donuts on the first floor of the Convention Center for some fine caffeine and sugar to help me maintain consciousness and attention for the rest of the 13 hour day. My third thought was whether there this might not be a bad time to plant myself in one of the squishy chairs they had in the main hall and catch a quick nap before the real sessions resumed.

But I stayed.

I'm not sure if it was because of inertia or because my curiosity was piqued. I learned in the introduction that Professor Kanter is an advisor for the Army in how to design its research grant programs to promote innovation. She was also a dynamic speaker who can hold an audience's attention, although there were a few moments when she reminded me a bit of Chris Farley's motivational speaker Matt Foley, the one who used to warn his audiences, "You're gonna end up eating a steady diet of government cheese, and living in a van down by the river!"

She started by describing how large organizations put up roadblocks to new ideas, and immediately I could see she knew what she was talking about. Here are some of the common stumbling blocks to innovation, most of which you'll probably recognize (I'm not listing them all):
  1. "Simplify" (also known as the "PowerPoint disease." Managers and others in organizations are always wanting ideas presented to them in the simplest bite-sized form, complete with bullet points. Innovative ideas don't always fit into such constraints. If they do, they may not be all that innovative.
  2. "We want new ideas, but don't want to be 'first.'" Being first with an innovative idea is risky; what if it doesn't work? Of course, it never seems to enter their minds that an idea is not truly innovative if you're the second person to pursue it.
  3. "We want new ideas, just not those new ideas." How many times have you encountered this attitude? I'm not sure what "new" ideas managers have in mind. Probably
  4. Free thinkers are disruptive to organizations. Indeed they are, because they question the status quo and how things have always been done. They also propose ideas whose potential more conventional thinkers don't see the value of and only see as causing difficulties. Change is difficult.
In fact, I think #4 is probably the most significant impediment to true innovation. You might think that universities would be less prone to it than private industry. I would have too, given that medical schools with a heavy research commitment tend to be made up of individual investigators doing their own individual projects, perhaps collaborating with a few of their peers. If the investigators can get outside funding, it's unlikely that anyone in the medical school is going to tell them they can't pursue their ideas.

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. For one thing, for junior faculty like me, the Chairperson and Division Chief decide how much and how long they will support us as we struggle to obtain NIH funding to become independent investigators. If they don't like what we're working on, we could find our "protected" research time not so protected any more. Either that, or we might find difficulty getting institutional resources to help us out. If your innovative project involves animal research, IACUC (the committee that reviews all animal protocols to make sure they are scientifically valid and do not inflict excessive pain on the animals) may throw stumbling blocks up. If your innovative project involves human subjects, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) will put up major stumbling blocks, failing to see the potential value or exaggerating the risks. (Don't get me wrong; the very purpose of the IRB is to protect human subjects. However, if they fail to see any value in your work because they don't see the innovation, they will incorrectly rate the potential benefits lower than they should, leading to a perceived risk-benefit ratio that does not favor your project.)

Of course, let's not forget that universities, like any large institution, build up a self-perpetuating and self-protecting bureaucracy that abhors changes in operating procedure. Don't even get me started on that. I could tell you tales of dealing with the Grant Office that...well, never mind.

But what to do?

Well, that's the topic for the next post in this series, when I get around to it (and assuming I can still find my notes from this talk).


  1. One of the things I started many years ago was to subscribe to the Harvard Business Review, which is an excellent magazine that more physicians should read. There are many articles of interest to us, including many on just what you're talking about.
    Ms. Kanter was editor for a time.

  2. The four points are dead on (I encounter the same thing). Not to quibble, but I think parts of #3 & #4 were chopped off somehow (I bring this up because I'm particularly interested in those topics).

    Good post. Now I know why I should never delete old partial posts...

  3. Yikes, you're right. That's what I get for updating this late at night. I fixed it.


  4. Consider that not all innovations are good. It is proper and reasonable for a group to be dubious about changes, because uncontrolled change can be amazingly destructive. (A pertinent example is the defense of the scientific establishment, including fending off the IDiots.) On the other hand, to deny *all* innovation, is to prevent adaptation to external changes, which generally don't respect local authority. Consider the history of China in general, where the dynasties simply failed to respond to developments in the rest of the world. But then consider the effects of the Marxist/Maoist "five-year plans", where a leader's "innovations" were imposed willy-nilly on large populations, often with disastrous results.

    It seems to me that the idea of "small-scale trials" represents a decent middle path between these extremes, but some of those trials are excessively tempting, and executive control may be needed to make sure the trial *stays* small-scale.... (Consider the issues with experimental treatments for cancer et al.) In general, if you want to draw on other people's resources to implement your own new idea, it's fair that you should provide some explanation and/or demonstration of its potential.

  5. "Yikes, you're right. That's what I get for updating this late at night. I fixed it."

    Not all of them, there's that "Probably/cr" hanging before "Free thinkers are disruptive..."

  6. social constructs are the most common, and most difficult, of challenges to change. of any kind.

    amongst them is the problem of "being different". society seems to applaud the few who make it, but insist on impeding the rest of us.

    i'm curious enough now to see what makes ms kanter an expert on creativity, and me an unemployed lawyer/biologist/technologist [apart from mild aspergers]

  7. Hi,
    While I was searching through Blogger I came past your site, it is not really the information I was after about breast cancer research but I did stay to read your blog and found it interesting and well done. Keep up the good work and hopefully I will visit again sometime and also find the information on breast cancer research that I was looking for in my travels.


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