Viewpoint: Research’s ‘lone genius’ image is unhelpful

Equations on a chalkboard

UKRI chief executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser on why we must recognise the vital contribution of everyone in research and innovation and debunk the Einstein myth.

The research and innovation system is an extraordinary place to work. I have met so many inspiring people making major contributions, from people making tea to people making telescopes, and this is not just a rhetorical nicety. There are many different roles that can be woven into a wide range of fulfilling career paths.

But despite the diverse opportunities, many people do not see themselves working in research and innovation. They don’t see it as a place for them.

Einstein-like geniuses

This is perhaps not surprising since a popular image of researchers and innovators is one of Einstein-like geniuses: superhumanly clever, obsessed with their work and driven by pure logic. They work alone in dusty libraries or in labs full of bubbling liquids doing arcane things that will either save the world or destroy it. Many people do not see this as a job for them. And the problems created by the lone genius myth for research extend much further.

Many researchers and innovators quite like the idea that they are superhumanly clever, dedicated people, driven by pure logic. Research and innovation are inherently uncertain pursuits. You have no idea whether you will find out anything interesting, or whether your innovation will be a success. It is comforting to imagine that through focus, genius, and razor-sharp logic, you will prevail.

An unhelpful myth

But researchers and innovators know very well that they are not geniuses marching toward the truth using pure logic. Rather than helping them deal with the inherent insecurities of their work, the myth ultimately amplifies insecurity, leaving the sector riddled with imposter syndrome.

If you are supposed to be a lone genius, then you can’t admit to doubt or acknowledge that you need help, which undermines wellbeing and stifles engaged discussion and productive collaboration. And if you are working in research or innovation in a different role, you may feel undervalued and not fully part of the endeavour.

Creative discovery is part of human nature

So the lone genius perception segregates research and innovation into a remote and alien corner of society that looks unattractive and unwelcoming to the diverse people that the system needs, and it inhibits the collaborative supportive research culture we need to catalyse creative discovery and innovation.

Fortunately, far from being for boffins, research and innovation is child’s play, or at least child’s play is research and innovation. Curiosity, a desire to understanding things, a drive to fix problems and make things work better are very basic human activities that everyone does every day. They involve creativity, imagination, joy, frustration, success, failure and all the things that make us human.

Solving demanding problems together

Of course, over thousands of years we have developed the art of research and innovation into a formal structure, with approaches to support its progress, and formal mechanisms to share ideas and concepts. We have used these approaches to tackle ever more demanding questions, to solve ever more complex problems and to bring ever more ingenious products to market. They are very successful approaches and some people are extremely good at them. Einstein was in fact an Einstein.

But research and innovation need far more people than Einsteins to progress. There are hardly any domains of research and innovation where it is possible to make progress as a lone genius. Research and innovation need a diverse range of researchers and innovators, but also many many people working with them to drive progress.

Research and innovation need technicians, administrators, project managers, librarians, archivists, IT specialists and communication experts, to name but a few. The tremendous efforts across the research and innovation system to address the COVID-19 pandemic is recent proof of this. It could not have happened, at scale and speed, without the combined contributions of so many people in different roles working to a shared goal.

A diverse community

And the best way to thrive with the insecurities and frustrations of research and innovation is to work in a community or team who understand and support each other, who can make tea and sympathise, or help fix a technical problem, or discuss the latest inexplicable result, or process the purchase order for the urgent replacement widget. This community of diverse, complementary talents drives research and innovation and every member of the community is important.

For as long as we associate research and innovation with the lone genius, we will fail to bring into the system the wide range of people whom we need. We will continue to undervalue the diverse contributions essential for success and risk disenfranchising the people who make them, and we will fuel imposter syndrome and its insidious harms.

Ultimately, we will relegate research and innovation to the margins of our society, making it much harder to reap the benefits and much harder to identify and prioritise the challenges people really care about.

We need to build a truly inclusive system that values and nurtures a much wider range of careers and career paths. A good place to start is to change ideas about who is part of the research and innovation system.

Recognising the wide range of roles

UKRI funds research and innovation. A significant proportion of this funding involves research grants awarded to principal and co-investigators and include direct costs for post-doctoral researchers and technicians. It is easy to think that those are the only people the grants fund. But through indirect costs, and through the dual support system, we are supporting many more people in many more roles.

What can be done to ensure that this wide range of roles is recognised for the vital contributions they make? How can we shift the perception of who is part of the research and innovation system?

Looking for 101 different jobs in research and innovation

To get the ball rolling, I am delighted to be collaborating with the Minister for Science Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway, to find 101 people, doing 101 different jobs that make major contributions to research and innovation, but who are not researchers and innovators.

If you are one such person, or work with one and would like to participate in this project please email your suggestion to stories@ukri.org. I am also keen to hear about other ideas and initiatives that could support a more inclusive definition of the research and innovation system.

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