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Fostering Innovation

March 8, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 10

When discussing how to effect innovation, talking about institutions where innovation is fostered or created is part of the story but not the most important part (C&EN, Dec. 7, 2009, page 3). Using the paradigm of a seed growing into a plant, institutions are the environment, but they aren't the potential contained within the seed. The environment is important, because the seed can't grow on a sidewalk, grows poorly and with lower rates of germination in poor soil, but grows well with high rates of germination in the best soil.

To address the needs of the "seeds," instead of identifying the best teachers and fostering them, we should identify students who have potential to innovate and tailor their education to encourage that potential to come to fruition. Overall, the current educational system is more likely to stunt creativity. Commercial and academic organizations provide funding and facilities, but innovation happens at the individual and team levels. Politics and other negative, interpersonal interactions stifle open thinking and creativity. Bureaucracies dilute achievements or steal the credit for them.

Compensation should be fair and structured to encourage high levels of engagement and innovation. For as unfairly as compensation is often meted out in our society, it may be that our primary global advantage with regard to innovation is that our compensation mechanism still beats the heck out of how innovation is rewarded in other societies.

Don't demand that innovators have excellent interpersonal and communication skills to "swim upstream" to sell their ideas. Unfortunately, innovations aren't immediately recognized by those who have the power to fund their pursuit; innovations need to be "sold." In the current organizational environment, many times the most important person involved with innovation is the one who has the best sales skills.

Stanley D. Young
Fort Collins, Colo

I read the editorial on innovation with dismay. Especially worrisome is a quote attributed to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He stated that math and science teachers should be paid more than other teachers, given that "some jobs are frankly tougher than others because of the subject matter and the locale."

If this kind of ignorance and prejudice holds sway among the elite of the U.S. educational system, the country is doomed. Although it is true that the U.S. has fallen toward the middle of the bunch when it comes to comparing student performance in math and science with that of other countries, ignorance of the humanities among U.S. students is even more substantial and bothersome.

Scientific innovation in our world is moving rapidly. As a matter of fact, it is moving too rapidly for the other human disciplines to keep pace. We have technologies that we haven't quite decided how to use, but they are moving straight into our economy without any substantial democratic debate.

Humans are multidimensional beings and need more than technology to live well. Philosophy is the discipline that teaches us how to live, so what could be more important than philosophy in the curriculum? Because we are making history today, why not study world history in depth? Because the world is becoming "flat," why not study geography as well? Although I am a chemist and I fully agree our students need to excel in science, I have also studied the humanities and consider them an important part of my (continuing) education.

The world will be faced with important choices in the next decades. We are still paying dearly for a string of really bad political decisions in the past. If we fail as a species, it's not going to be because we don't have enough scientists or M.B.A.s but because our educational system is producing only unidimensional men and women, and we haven't learned enough philosophy to guide our actions.

Don't raise the salaries of science teachers at the expense of history teachers; rather, sacrifice the latest military base in Colombia! I suggest you raise the pay of all teachers, including those whose disciplines will teach you how to live.

Vittorio Farina
Beerse, Belgium



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