Academia Suppresses Creativity: Why, How, and What to Do About It



Why academia does not always encourage and support highly creative researchers

In the May 9 2012 issue of The Scientist: The Magazine of the Life Sciences, there is an article entitled “Academia suppresses creativity: By discouraging change, universities are stunting scientific innovation, leadership, and growth.” The article is written by Fred Southwick, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Florida.

Southwick writes: “Creativity enhances life. It enables the great thinkers, artists, and leaders of our world to continually push forward new concepts, new forms of expression and new ways to improve every facet of our existence. The creative impulse is of particular importance to scientific research. Without it, the same obstacles, ailments, and solutions would occur repeatedly because no one stepped back and reflected to gain a new perspective. Unfortunately, in the academic world—where much of today’s scientific innovation takes place—researchers are encouraged to maintain the status quo and not rock the boat.”

Southwick identifies two main factors that are responsible for the discouragement of creativity in academia: research funding and academic leadership.

The issue with funding mainly concerns researchers in the biological and physical sciences (and to a lesser extent, the social sciences) and is well known. Obtaining research grants has become an increasingly competitive business. Many more people apply for grants now than in the past while the amount of funds available has remained the same or decreased. Federal funding agencies fund only about 10% of the applications and grant review panels have become highly risk-averse. They tend to fund proposals by well established investigators, which often represent replications or minor extensions of previous work, while creative, original, and riskier proposals by young researchers are penalized. The funding issue has its origin outside of academia and its solution must also come from outside of academia: a political decision to allocate more funding to research.

The question of why academic leadership may suppress creativity is an interesting one. Southwick does not articulate how this happens but one could argue that university administrators do not sufficiently encourage researchers to do more creative and original work and/or do not support the careers of highly creative researchers (e.g. by not giving appropriate salary raises, promotions, or space and other resources needed for research). As for the question of why creativity is suppressed, Southwick suggests that: “Many who succeed in advancing to leadership positions in academia have been cautious, making few enemies and stirring little controversy.” It follows that their lack of encouragement of creativity is the product of their lack of competence or lack of motivation.

Some professors who advance to leadership positions in academia are unsuccessful researchers who switched to the administrative track because their research career was going nowhere; these administrators do not encourage creativity in research because they know little about it or have often felt threatened by their more creative and more successful colleagues. Then there are other professors who become administrators because of the prospect for personal financial gain (salaries can be doubled o tripled when professors become Deans, Provosts, or Presidents) or their ambition for power. These administrators do not encourage creativity in research because they have no interest in doing it and because it does not fit their agenda. They support the careers of researchers who can help them accomplish their own career ambitions and make decisions that will give them the visibility they need for their next career advancement, while avoiding any controversy or negative publicity. Unlike funding, the issue of leadership is internal to academia and requires an internal solution.

Here I fully support Southwick’s suggestion, which is that universities should take a clue from the business world. In the business world, it is unlikely that individuals without strong leadership skills climb to the top of the ladder simply by virtue of avoiding controversy and not making enemies. Strong leaders in the business world understand that investment in human resources and employee development, including rewarding creative and productive employees, is key to the creation of successful, competitive enterprises. In the business world, there is also accountability for leaders’ poor performance on the job. If the company’s profit does not meet expectations and its best employees are not happy, the company’s leaders and senior administrators are quickly replaced. In academia, instead, administrators who perform poorly are not held accountable for their failures, often keep their post or even get promoted, and in the rare circumstances in which their appointments are not renewed, it takes years to replace them.

As Southwick points out in his article “Ambitious and creative minds have revolutionized our world, and our perceptions of our universe, in a very short period of time. If our universities fail in their primary mission to create new knowledge, our progress toward creating a better world for everyone will be seriously compromised.”

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Tags: academia, business, creativity, leadership, science

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