Why creativity in science matters and three ways to achieve it

Colorful quantums with waves and particles, computer generated abstract background, 3D rendering science

We need to encourage the creativity within science to flourish. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Ruth Morgan
Vice Dean (Interdisciplinarity Entrepreneurship), UCL Faculty of Engineering Sciences, University College London (UCL)
Roger Kneebone
Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science, Department of Surgery & Cancer, Imperial College London
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  • Creativity is critical in ensuring that science engages meaningfully with society, industry and governments.
  • Ten experts from different perspectives collaborated in a conversation event to discuss the future of global science leadership.
  • The conversation identified why creativity is critical for transformative science and innovation, and three ways to enable it.

Creativity is critical to the future of work. The Future of Jobs Report 2023 ranked analytical thinking and creative thinking as the first and second most important skills that workers will need to have in the future. Nesta has found a similar trend, suggesting that jobs requiring creativity will grow as a percentage of the labour market by 2030. At the same time, science and technology will be critical as we seek solutions to global-scale challenges such as infectious diseases and climate change, and respond to transformative innovations such as generative AI.

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Yet, science and creativity are often seen as distinct, rather than two sides of the same coin. Science is framed as a methodologically driven activity, that provides clear data and facts offering solutions to a wide range of challenges. Creativity, on the other hand, is framed as the province of artists and performers.

Creative work is seen as subjective rather than detached, with less tangible procedures and clear cut outcomes. This provides a striking contrast to meticulous, iterative and measured scientific work. Yet this apparent separation between creativity and science is a pervasive false dichotomy, which if left unchallenged has serious consequences. Science has not always been framed in such narrow terms. The key to developing the science we need for a future we ourselves are creating, is to encourage the creativity within science to flourish.

Why do we need creativity in science?

In a world searching for certainty and reassurance, the idea that scientific knowledge is always provisional and contestable can seem unsettling. Framing scientific knowledge as fluid, elusive and always incomplete sits uncomfortably with a desire for clarity. This became evident in tensions that emerged between scientific advice, government policy and public support during the recent pandemic. The notion that good scientists try to prove themselves wrong – rather than showing themselves to be right – seems counterintuitive. Yet it is within that provisionality and uncertainty that creativity is most important. Scientists’ ability to look critically at the data they gather and develop alternative explanations, is central to originality and innovation.

Creativity is essential for achieving scientific breakthroughs in every domain, but does not take place at the same speed. Finding solutions to challenges and opening up new possibilities can come about through convulsive upheavals in scientific thinking – such as Copernican astronomy, quantum physics or discovering the structure of DNA. Yet they also take place through incremental developments rooted in routine, repetitive, even tedious work. This is a characteristic of all expert work, whether in the sciences, the visual and performing arts or the humanities. Musicians and magicians practice incessantly; painters spend years developing and refining their skills; actors and dancers are all familiar with tedium; and scientists are no different. It is that focus and practice that leads to expertise and the ability to be creative, which creates opportunities for breakthroughs.

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Creativity is also critical in ensuring that science engages meaningfully with society, industry and governments. If we are to create solutions for the problems we have now, and the ones we have not yet encountered, we must establish dialogues that bring people together in unconventional ways. Only in the context of understanding the world through multiple perspectives can we support science that takes place with and for society and that generates impacts that improve the state of the world.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered many instances of cross-disciplinary creativity. New collaborations emerged between clinicians, engineers, scientists and craftsmen. Whether designing ventilators for intensive care units or producing protective clothing for healthcare professionals, new problems demanded creative solutions. No single person or group holds a monopoly on creativity. The capacity to be creative is central to being human. Recognising the creativity inherent in every domain, including science has the potential to revolutionise innovation.

How do we achieve creativity in science?

To explore these ideas, in 2020 we curated a conversation between three World Economic Forum Young Scientists, a senior clinician, the Editor-in-Chief of a world leading multidisciplinary science journal, a futurist, a strategist working in the advertising industry, an academic with expertise in future crime, and a close-up magician with a background in mechanical engineering to consider “how can creativity flourish in science?”. The full findings have recently been published by Royal Society Open Science, and the outcome was a broad consensus that though creativity may be hard to pin down, it is possible to create conditions that foster it and acknowledge its importance.

We start with three ways to achieve and nurture creativity in science and scientists:

1. Provide opportunities for scientists to interact with experts outside their field

In particular, those from the social and behavioural specialities and from “non-scientific” disciplines such as the visual and performing arts. These interactions entail hard work by everyone concerned, developing common languages which encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas. As George Bernard Shaw said, “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” In this context the role of the “expert generalist” is valuable in bringing lateral thinking and an ability to “connect the dots” to make connections between different disciplines and sectors.

2. Create the conditions for “creative” thinking as well as for “routine” scientific work

These include time, space and resources for exploratory, playful conversation without an obvious or predetermined goal. Though this ludic aspect of scientific thinking is regularly overlooked, it is often through doodling and play that the most powerful insights arise. Yet, creative “space” is not often part of science infrastructure, although there is a growing movement of initiatives aiming to fill this gap such as the Serendipity Programme, the Centre for Unusual Collaborations and the Arista Institute.

3. Develop ways to communicate the inherent provisionality of science

This means communicating in meaningful ways to those working in government and wider society. Scientists need to share the processes of their work as well as its outcomes. There is also a need to show what can and cannot be known for certain, and to develop an open dialogue around uncertainty and risk. At the same time we need to develop a scientific lingua franca that allows effective communication across specialty boundaries and creates dialogue across disciplines and different sectors so that valuable science insights can be woven into broader decision making.

Looking forward

Creativity therefore, has a central role to play in science that will engage with real world challenges in systemic ways. Yet the importance of creativity in science is often undervalued or unrecognized. Though it lies at the heart of scientific thinking, the presence of creativity is often obscured by scientific language, with its necessary translation into “objective” results and conclusions. Yet if science is to fulfil its potential for changing and reshaping society, we must acknowledge its human dimensions. Science is carried out by scientists, and scientists are people, and incentivize and reward creativity.

At the same time science must deliver its outcomes with and for those who make up communities and society. Science can only realise its full impact by creating the opportunities for engaging on a personal level between those who conduct it, those whom it affects, and those who support and fund it. To achieve that we must recognise the creative constituents of scientific work. We must notice, cherish and protect those characteristics as we communicate science advances and breakthroughs within our communities. And we must curate and invest in the process by which valuable science gets into the hands of decisions makers who have power to apply it.

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