Innovation in a time of caution

The live launch of the spiked/Pfizer survey ‘What is the Greatest Innovation?’ took a critical look at the i-word - that buzzword of our age.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Science & Tech

spiked has launched many assaults on today’s precautionary culture, where concerns over health and safety override risk-taking and big thinking and where human interventions into the natural world are often derided as hubristic. But how do our arguments square with the current ubiquitous celebration of innovation and creativity? From business to scientific research to the arts, ‘innovation’ is the buzzword of our times. Countless books, journals, government policy documents and think-tank research papers have the i-word in their titles and celebrate ‘innovative’ thinking and solutions. So do we really live in cautious times, or is innovation bigger and better than ever?

This contradiction was put to a panel of speakers by spiked‘s managing editor, Helene Guldberg, who chaired the launch event of the spiked/Pfizer survey What’s the Greatest Innovation? in central London on 6 June. The lively discussion went some way towards disentangling the inconsistency between today’s risk aversion and celebration of innovation, putting the debate about innovation into some historical perspective.

At the event, three of more than 100 key thinkers in science, technology and medicine who participated in the spiked/Pfizer survey spoke about the greatest innovations in their fields. They also explored what innovation really means and how it tends to come about. Dr David Roblin, vice president of Clinical R&D at Pfizer Global Research & Development, asked: ‘Is innovation “the big bang” or does it happen in smaller increments that in the end make a significant difference to the way people live?’

This question threw up another issue: whether innovation mainly depends on individual discovery, with one committed scientist or researcher putting his mind to cracking a problem, or whether it is primarily the cultural climate that defines the level of innovation at any given time. Also speaking at the launch event, Marcus Du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Wadham College in Oxford, pointed out that during the French Revolution people began to challenge the old wisdom and accept new ideas and ways of thinking – and thus there were some radical transformations in science during that period. Today, by contrast, social concerns with health and safety and avoiding risk stand as obstacles in the way of innovation, said the third speaker Dr Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome Trust.

Still, in their responses to the survey, all three speakers chose an innovation that was heralded by an individual. They all linked historical transitions in their disciplines to individual contributions within their fields – what some refer to as ‘eureka moments’, where a single scientist or researcher does or discovers something amazing. Yet, as Professor Du Sautoy pointed out, innovation may start with a ‘private moment’, but the benefits of the innovate finding can only be realised and implemented through the work of many others. The advancement of human knowledge, the development of technological and medical breakthroughs, only comes about through building on previous research and through collaborative efforts, said Professor Du Sautoy.

Dr Roblin kicked off the discussion with his choice of greatest innovation: the invention of the clinical trial. James Lind first used a clinical trial in 1747 to find a remedy for scurvy. Dr Roblin described this as ‘the greatest innovation in the field of medicine’. As Dr Roblin put it in his survey response: ‘Lind’s work meant that patients are no longer subjected to treatments on the basis of bunkum and anecdotes.’

Dr Arnold, arguing that innovation can involve a ‘miraculous moment’ from which future developments and innovations spring, nominated Röntgen’s invention of the x-ray. In his response to the online spiked/Pfizer survey, Dr Arnold wrote: ‘X-rays have always seemed pretty extraordinary in enabling scientists to picture the structure of the body while it is still alive, and for opening up the idea (important for our general culture as well as medicine) that we can understand the body in a visual way by extending our eyes with technological innovations.’ At the launch event, Dr Arnold pointed out that in almost every decade new imaging technologies had emerged – and they all can trace their origins to Röntgen’s ‘miraculous moment’ in 1895 when he produced the first x-ray photograph of his wife’s hand. (Quite why he thought it would be safer to use his wife’s hand rather than his own, we don’t really know, said Dr Arnold….)

Professor Du Sautoy lamented the fact that mathematics is taught in an ahistorical way in schools. He said it would be better if maths lessons identified the key moments in history when people’s innovations have changed the entire subject of mathematics – the mechanisms of which enable us to understand and do so much more in the other sciences. The idea of establishing proof with 100 per cent certainty, for instance, was invented in Ancient Greece. And the idea that 0 could be a number originated in India and completely changed the way we do maths, said Professor Du Sautoy. His own nomination for the greatest innovation of all was the zeta function, a nineteenth-century concept ‘exploited by the German mathematician Bernhard Riemann to reveal many of the secrets of the primes’, which have ‘fascinated mathematicians ever since the Ancient Greeks discovered they are the building blocks of all numbers’.

A contributor from the floor argued that there is not much substance to the ‘rhetoric’ of innovation today. Dr Arnold responded that there is indeed a danger that we will overuse certain words and render them meaningless. ‘There is nothing less creative than endless discussions about creativity’, he said, arguing that the next step might be to establish innovation as an academic discipline for study – which surely would be the ‘death knell’ for innovation.

Professor Du Sautoy said that the formalisation of innovation can stand as a barrier to more organic forms of discovery. Sometimes, he said, innovation comes about when we’re not thinking about how to solve the problems of the moment. This means the pressures of publishing deadlines, or the current government’s short-termist goals and targets in science and medicine, can stifle true innovative exploration and experimentation.

One audience member said there is no valid evidence that innovation is waning. For instance, developments are frequently made in the areas of computing and communication technologies, which now impact on our daily lives in ways that were unimagined just a decade ago. Others pointed out that we often confuse innovation with invention, and one contributor said that the discussion around innovation is too often focused on short-term solutions such as computing technology.

Today, when we identify a social challenge, many will demand bans or restrictions to deal with it, rather than ambitious solutions that might allow us to sustain our modern lifestyles. Consider environmental innovations. As Dr Roblin pointed out, we are seeing many of these today; indeed, ‘we are living in a period of huge creativity’ in this area at least. spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, speaking from the audience, argued that there is an element of ‘double speak’ in the discussion of innovation today – especially when it comes to ‘environmental innovations’. What is described as ‘innovative’ is often a measure for holding society back rather than pushing it forward. For example, said O’Neill, many argue that new-fangled solar panels or cheap bed nets are innovative solutions to the lack of electricity and the spread of malaria in Africa – yet such ‘innovations’ are really a way of saying no to meaningful development, real industrialisation and serious efforts to combat disease with DDT and through other methods. ‘Here, “innovation” is actually about putting a stop to progress and encouraging people to make do and mend’, argued O’Neill.

As various contributors to the spiked/Pfizer survey pointed out, there can be no definitive answer to the question ‘What is the Greatest Innovation?’ Yet the survey and the launch event have illuminated important scientific and social developments from the distant and recent past, and shown that, in the face of pessimistic assessments of man’s impact on his surroundings, the advancement of knowledge can proceed – so long as we embrace experimentation and remain open to new ideas.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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