The Path(finder) Forward

What makes you yell with excitement?

Roger Hanlon, a marine biologist, captured video of an octopus in camouflage mode. Hanlon hit the surface screaming. “They thought I was having a dive accident,” he says in the video. “It was a eureka moment.”

We like eureka moments on the innovation team, and we look for ways to increase the chances those moments happen more often. Consider it engineered serendipity.

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (we call them PIPs) provide space for bold ideas that have the potential for transformational scientific change. PIPs tap the creativity of agency employees.

The PIPs program is an internal competition that provides seed funding and time for EPA Office of Research and Development scientists to pursue high-risk, high-reward research. Any scientist or post-doc can submit an innovative idea, and external panels of experts help us spot the proposals that have the most potential.

We challenge our researchers to consider the question: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if EPA could … ?”

EPA has answered with almost 300 proposals in four years.

In the program’s first three years, we’ve had scientists measure coastal water quality from space, test glowing tadpoles that indicate endocrine disruptors in water, and build systems to better mimic human lungs for airborne chemical toxicity screens.

And we just announced the awardees for the fourth year.

PIPs allow us to examine and nurture the pitches that challenge current thinking or could leapfrog the current science in that field if successful. At a more general level, the program demonstrates the power of acknowledging that good ideas with broad impact can come from anyone in an organization.

  • Has your office tried a program to spark innovation internally?
  • What insights have you gained from these kinds of programs?

Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action. EPA does not verify the accuracy or science contained here.

Dustin Renwick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!).

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