Tools for Innovative Thinking in Epidemiology

Roberta B. Ness, Dean, University of Texas School of Public Health, has a recent article, “Tools for Innovative Thinking in Epidemiology,” Am. J. Epidemiol. (2012) 175 (8): 733-738.  The abstract:

Innovation is the engine of scientific progress. Concern has been raised by the National Academies of Science about how well America is sustaining its ‘‘creative ecosystem.’’ In this commentary, the author argues that we can all improve our ability to think innovatively through instruction and practice. The author presents a series of tools that are currently being taught in a curriculum developed at the University of Texas, based on earlier evidence-based creativity training programs. The tools are these: 1) finding the right question; 2) enhancing observation; 3) using analogies; 4) juggling induction and deduction; 5) changing your point of view; 6) broadening the perspective; 7) dissecting the problem; 8) leveraging serendipity and reversal; 9) reorganization and combination of ideas; 10) getting the most out of groups; and 11) breaking out of habitual expectations and frames. Each tool is explained using examples from science and public health. It is likely that each of us will identify with and agree with the usefulness of one or two of the tools described. Broader mastery of many of these tools, particularly when used in combination, has provided our students with a powerful device for enhancing innovation.

The article is a synopsis of a book she recently published, Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas, a quick introduction to which can also be heard on a TEDx talk.


About Peter J. Taylor

Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (
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