Thinking Outside the Box as a Government Scientist

As a scientist, I’m a linear thinker. One of the defining features of my role is leveraging the scientific method to learn things about the molecules and processes that are central to my agency’s mission. Often the only way to arrive at some conclusions is to use the controlled thought process that the scientific method provides- the structure imposed by identifying and testing a hypothesis, by only controlling one variable at a time, and so on. This mode of thinking allows some order to rise out of the chaos of available information.

This mode of thinking allows us to see the signal in the noise. On the other hand, though, I think that as scientists, we sometimes get caught up in the scientific method, even using it as a crutch to save us from thinking outside of the box at times. How can this be? The scientific method allows only certain leaps of logic (its defining feature in fact), so there can be a comfort in putting blinders on to possible conclusions that are outside of these leaps. It could be that these hypotheses aren’t testable, or that the experimentation would be too difficult, or that there’s a synergy of factors at work causing the phenomenon being examined. But whatever the reason, sometimes we don’t even allow ourselves to think about things that lie outside of the realm of a clearly defined, linear set of experiments.

At a previous position, I was given an enormous amount of freedom to lead my own projects, with the stipulation that the intellectual products that I create should not only satisfy program goals but also be publishable in the scientific literature. No problem, right? What about when the publications must be completed on a timetable, such as two peer-reviewed publications per year? Now that’s a different story… and enough to make many scientists squirm. After all, you can’t rush good science, and even if you could, quality publications are always a gamble. And if you’re after great science, not just good science, then well…each of those papers can be years in the making. So how do you produce good science on a timeline? This constraint inevitably led to experiments that were very linear and very logical, the “sure bets” that would generate sure results that had a good chance of being published. And largely, this system works. The “sure bets” pan out and result in papers that successfully place their grain of sand atop the mountain of existing knowledge. But progress is incremental. This kind of thinking doesn’t advance a field by leaps and bounds.

What could we accomplish if we think about scientific problems from outside of the box? No, the answer is not, “Getting fired,” although it may feel that way at times. But giving yourself permission to think about problems from a different perspective, even if it means that results are no longer a sure thing, can be quite exciting. You may even stumble upon an idea that just might work. At times, I think we can feel lost doing this, though. For me, allowing myself this freedom finally resulted in the long-awaited “Aha!” idea that later became my first grant application. I haven’t yet heard back on whether the powers that be feel the project is worth funding…but whether the project is funded or not, I’ll know that I thought through an idea from an entirely different angle, and it was unique enough to get someone’s attention, even if only my own.

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