Creativity in Science vs. Design

Scientists are often told that in order to conduct effective research and succeed in their field, they must be creative.

What does this really mean for hard science, which seems – on the surface – very different from creative activities such as painting, sculpture or music, and from creative professions like digital design, advertising or marketing?

It’s true to say that both scientific and creative professions involve abstract thought and complex ideas. In the life sciences, we try to understand and reverse-engineer complex biological machines and systems that are too small to be seen by eye and impossible to dissemble by hand – for example the cells that make up our bodies. We have to develop mental impressions of these microscopic objects and systems, and use roundabout methods to figure out how they work – all without ever seeing them with our eyes or feeling them in our hands. Other sciences such as physics become even more abstract in their practice, and some concepts like quantum theory don’t even follow our intuitive day-to-day experience of how the world behaves.

It seems that encouraging scientists to be ‘creative’ is one of those phrases that have crept in as jargon; probably alongside the corporate business-like practices that universities now follow. Personally, I cringe a little each time I hear it in a scientific context as it is usually coming from the mouth of a funding body, a career development professional or worse, a politician, all of whom are far removed from the practice of science.

Surely, however, being creative should be encouraged whatever the context? There are certainly many artistic people working in science, so I believe the trouble arises from the definition of the term ‘creative’. We all understand the concept of creativity when applied to art, design, etc., but what does it mean for scientists, who theorize, count and measure?

I would argue that in the context of ‘creative professions’ creativity can be defined as the intuitive or considered mixing of unrelated objects, ideas, or building blocks of whatever form, resulting in the synthesis of something new, which – and this is for me the crucial point – produces an emotional or behavioral reaction in those who experience it. Now that might sound like an unnecessarily wordy, academic way of putting it. Forgive me; I’m a product of my environment…

I think the idea of creativity in science is much simpler, encouraging us to use the tools available to us in smart, thoughtful and efficient ways to answer important questions about how the world works. The mental processes required to achieve this might resemble those of other creative activities, but to me, the difference is significant. Apart from the ‘Eureka!’ moments we might experience from time-to-time, science doesn’t elicit the same emotions as viewing a Caravaggio painting, the wild joy of jumping around playing loud rock music, or… I don’t know… the urge to run out and buy a new product from Apple.

Perhaps then, if we can be more honest with our language, realise what we share intellectually with different professions and where we differ, we can share practices that benefit us all. Check out this article by Ben McNeil in ArsTechnica for a great example of the confusion over creativity in science.


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