A broader horizon by more modest means?

Children in the classroom
Europe is still the source of enormous knowledge and enormous creativity and, when the conditions are right, globally inspirational models of collaboration.
Charles Leadbeater
This years SciTech Europe 2012 event, which took place in Brussels on the 21st and 22nd November, played host to delegates from across Europe, who gathered to hear eminent speakers discussing the landscape of innovation on the continent and beyond.

Although these speakers highlighted many of the obstacles facing the European Union and its neighbouring countries, it did transpire from the plenary sessions that there are reasons to be optimistic for the future of science, research and innovation in Europe.

In light of the decisions currently being made on the budget for Horizon 2020, the financial instrument behind the Innovation Union initiative (the European Parliaments Committee on Industry, Research and Technology plans to adopt its negotiating mandate on 28th November), the question of whether the proposed allocation of 80 billion euros for the new research framework programme will be maintained hangs in the balance.

Here, ScienceOmega.com reports on the issues raised and potential solutions proposed by two of those who addressed the SciTech Europe 2012 conference – Professor Lord Robert Winston and Charles Leadbeater.

The latter, an author and former advisor to the British government, entitled his address The New Rules of Innovation. In it, the former journalist set out to make the point that innovation which focuses on systems will be more powerful, more successful, solve more problems and generate more wealth than innovation focusing on discrete products, even if discrete products fit into those systems.

"Many of the systems weve inherited in the developed world are too clumsy, too top-heavy, too self-interested, and too resource-intensive," Leadbeater argued. "The same old economy with slightly safer banks will not be enough; I think theres a strong case for the idea that we need much more systemic innovation and change in the financial services industry. Energy systems, healthcare systems and certainly welfare systems in Europe need to be rethought too."

While innovation in terms of products is still important, Leadbeater contended that in future we will need to focus on how products, services, software, and infrastructure interconnect to create systems. Communication and information technologies are expected to allow us to knit systems together in various original ways.

Facilitating communication is, and will continue to be, extremely important in discussions between researchers, funding bodies, institutions, the public and other stakeholders. A key message which emerged from the address given by Professor Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London, was that representation – particularly the representation of science in the media – is highly influential when it comes to innovation.

"There are very unpredictable and serious ethical consequences of scientific innovation," Professor Lord Winston stated. "The problems are manifest, but these are debates we will have to have in due course. What troubles me is the arrogance we often have in the way we present ourselves as scientists. Nor are we objective. Scientists are hugely emotionally influenced by what they see."

On a related note, Professor Lord Winston was keen to emphasise that scientists, researchers, and science communicators must be rather more careful when making predictions publicly. Exaggerating the impact of what can be achieved by science and innovation can contribute to the undermining of public confidence. In a certain sense, Professor Lord Winston suggested, there is a Science Delusion along the lines of Professor Richard Dawkins God Delusion. This comment chimed with the concept put forward by Leadbeater that innovation nowadays is akin to a secular religion.

Our belief in innovation, according to this idea, is a collective coping mechanism: a source of hope that the future will be better and that somehow innovation will redeem us no matter how much carbon we have burned.

These tendencies are dangerous, both speakers seemed to imply, because science and innovation are the means to an end rather than being that end. It is the way in which we use knowledge and innovative systems that has the potential to save us, not the knowledge or the systems by themselves. By extension, the foundational myth of the religion of innovation is that innovation comes from creative individuals, but this is almost certainly not the case.

"Innovative products come from creative teams, and only very rarely from creative individuals," Leadbeater said. "They come from relatively close-knit, intensively connective teams. Innovative systems, however, are not created just by teams, but by alliances."

It is quite clear that future systems will need to be lean and frugal in a world where resources are finite and already feeling the squeeze. Successful systems will use little and recycle their waste, largely, suggested Leadbeater, utilising shared and social resources as a more effective means than ownership.

According to Professor Lord Winston, a tad more modesty on the part of scientists is essential because they have the ability to negatively influence policy, funding decisions, and even legislation. He highlighted the dangers of allocating funding to projects designated as priority research by outside pressures or high publicity levels in the name of innovation; this is to the detriment of important work that may be otherwise overlooked.

This sentiment was echoed by Professor Martin Andler, a governing board member of the Euroscience Foundation, who expressed frustration with the emphasis placed on innovation and deliverable criteria in the allocation of funding; innovation as such may be out of the reach of basic research, but that does not make it any less necessary.

Professor Lord Winston took the human genome project as an example of the case for needing more modesty in the way predictions are made and innovation is publicised. He claimed that although the knowledge gained is useful, it is disproportionate to the hype which surrounded the project and that most of the resulting work done could have been done without it.

"I would argue that no-one has benefited very much from the sequencing of the genome," he said. "The message given here is that this is an overwhelmingly important aspect of biology, and I think thats an error of judgment. As a map, the A-Z of Washington DC is probably more useful than the human genome sequence, and Shakespeares Hamlet can tell us a great deal more about our humanity."

According to Professor Lord Winston, there have been a number of pseudoscientific attacks from people who may not necessarily have the credentials to uphold their arguments, particularly with regard to the pharmaceuticals industry. He also pointed out, on the other hand, that the pharmaceuticals industry has been craven in not making statistics and the results of clinical trials more open and transparent. Professor Lord Winston stressed that both scientists and industry professionals need to be much more prepared to consider proper public engagement.

"Research carried out at Imperial College London means an undifferentiated embryonic stem cell can be turned into a beating cardiomyocyte," Professor Lord Winston said. "The idea that stem cell biology could be used to replace damaged heart muscle is an extraordinary example of how innovation could be used and promoted.

"However, regulation in Europe has made this very difficult; its not possible in Germany or Italy, and in Britain it took a long time to get this on the statute books. The best embryologist I know said to me that she didnt want to work in this area any longer because its seen as so disreputable. That sort of loss is an issue that must be addressed."

In spite of such justifiable concerns, the fact that such progress has been made highlights the potential for discovery and innovation that exists. This is part of the reason that Leadbeater thinks that, especially in Europe, we have good reason to be hopeful about the future.

"Europe is still the source of enormous knowledge and creativity and, when the conditions are right, globally inspirational models of collaboration," Leadbeater emphasised.

He went on to offer Futbol Club Barcelona (FC Barcelona) as a fitting model for innovation within Europe. As their slogan goes, Barcelona is more than just a football club. Johan Cruyff was responsible for the total football which lies at the heart of the philosophy of which the current team is the embodiment.

"What you see when they play is the collaborative exploration of possibility," pointed out Leadbeater. "They are constantly networked together so they only ever win as team; the way they train makes them instinctively collaborative. At the heart of this approach is a different way of thinking about creativity. This is total football, and what I think we need is total innovation."

Leadbeater concluded that the motto of FC Barcelona is the one simple rule needed for 21st Century innovation: You will not win unless you pass. This is change that must be instituted from the bottom up; it is at the clubs schools – where young players learn their skills and collaborative instincts – that the foundations for the sides success are laid. Similarly, it is at an early age that an improvement in UK, European and global society will need to be implemented.

"If were going to change our society, we have to start with young people, preferably in primary schools," argued Professor Lord Winston. "In order to have a properly literate society, we should be concentrating more of our resources on children under 11, which in turn might positively impact on innovation."

Initiatives such as Imperial Colleges Reach Out Lab (ROL), which opened on 23rd March 2010, tackle the issue head on by linking public engagement and outreach activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The ROL aims to excite school-age children with practical work on STEM subjects, hopefully injecting much-needed enthusiasm which will result in more interest at higher levels of education. The ROL and similar initiatives also carry out a valuable role in challenging preconceptions about science, research and innovation.

"Creativity is not about lone geniuses," Leadbeater stressed. "Talent matters, skills matter, and knowledge matters, but what really matters is the way these are brought together in a collaborative undertaking."



Read more about what Professor Martin Andler had to say in a forthcoming interview with ScienceOmega.com...

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Another reason may be that physical symptoms are all too often blamed on the mental health condition. It happened to me. I now have permanent nerve damage as I was told my symptoms were 'psychosomatic' and left untreated for seven years.


Commented EJ on
Mentally ill under-treated for physical health

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