Research creativity under the microscope
Small working groups, flexible work environments where researchers from different groups can interact with one another, long-term funding, and low administrative workloads - these are just some of the prerequisites for scientific creativity, according to a report published by an EU-funded project.
The CREA study (Creative capabilities and the promotion of highly innovative research) surveyed experts in the fields of nanotechnologies and human genetics to identify some of the most creative accomplishments by European and US scientists.
From over 400 nominations, 20 highly creative research groups were selected for the study. Through interviews with individual researchers in these groups, the study team was able to scrutinise their working environments and identity organisational and institutional factors influencing their creativity.
The study finds that creative scientific research mostly occurs in small groups of between two and eight scientists, who conduct their work on a competitive basis but in cooperation with numerous other groups. 'The size of research groups should be considered an important management objective for effective research governance, particularly in new and frontier research areas,' says the study. Research environments should also be non-hierarchical so as to encourage open dialogue and foster creativity, especially among young scientists.
Another important factor is the working environment, which the study points out should be organised in such a way as to provide rich opportunities for contact with other research groups that have complementary research interests and focuses. To foster this interaction, the study suggests introducing cross-unit seed research awards, lab staff rotations, cross-training and inter-unit seminars and exchanges. Spatial arrangements, such as the allocation of offices, junior research space, hallways, coffee bars or laboratory facilities, and social arrangements such as lunchtime patterns, may also encourage communication opportunities across departmental borders, ranks, and disciplines.
Not surprisingly, the study finds that creativity thrives when sufficient long-term funding is provided. Unfortunately, research funding agencies only offer, if at all, a minuscule share of their overall budgets to 'out-of-the box' research. When this type of research is funded, resources often do not stretch beyond three years, which the study argues is too short a time to foster breakthrough research. In order to encourage more creativity, the study calls on agencies to increase the amount of funding and the funding duration of projects (up to five years) for frontier research.
Rewarding creativity with new scientific opportunities rather than extra administrative workloads is also recommended by the study. Scientists are often rewarded for their outstanding work by having the size of their research group increased, by being put in charge of a research institute, or by becoming a national expert on various committees. However, these rewards have a perverse effect, says the study, since they prevent these scientists from doing what they do best, namely research and mentoring.
Efforts are therefore needed to offer new 'research enhancing' rewards for outstanding scientists that allow them to concentrate on research. The study recommends the further development of reward systems for outstanding researchers that allow them to remain actively involved in research, acting as a mentor and inspiration to their junior colleagues, without becoming administrators of large departments, or over-burdened by routine procedures related to institutional management.
The CREA study was funded under the under the Newly Emerging Science and Technologies (NEST) programme of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). It is hoped that the recommendations from the study will be fed into European research policy.
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Category: Project results
Data Source Provider: Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe)
Document Reference: Based on the report 'Creativity capabilities and the promotion of highly innovative research in Europe and the United States'
Subject Index: Scientific Research