Center for Innovation Generation

Center for Innovation Generation - Innovation Banner

Challenging mediocrity and the norm by teaching innovation and creativity.

 To learn more about Roberta Ness, visit her website.

Roberta Ness

Roberta Ness

Researchers often ask, “Why isn’t science solving the biggest problems of the modern age?” In the health arena, scientists predict that our children will likely be the first generation of Americans to have lower life expectancies than their parents. Thirty years and $100 billion into the war on cancer age standardized death rates from adult cancers have declined only modestly. Overweight and obesity have become normative with profound health and economic consequences. Rates of prematurity, a sentinel, national health indicator, are on the rise. It all seems like an indictment of science.

Moreover, American science is losing ground in the international arena. In reviewing citations from 1997 to 2007, America went from marked preeminence to a much closer first in front of China’s rising star. A recent editorial in Science decried that America is losing its hegemony in science. What is wrong? Thomas Friedman, in his provocative book, The World is Flat claims that there is only one way for America to maintain its competitive edge in an increasingly multinational world economy: innovation.

Google innovation and you get 96 million hits. Innovation recently became one of the handful of key criteria used by National Institutes of Health peer review panels in scoring grant applications. Kuhn in his classic text, Scientific Revolutions identified innovation as the way to move from normal science swirling around at a single level, to the next level.

If innovation is so critical to our nation’s scientific enterprise, we must place great emphasis on teaching it. Teaching innovation must be innovative in its own right. Analyzing case studies and or using current knowledge are not innovative. Providing creative tools and using hands-on exercises, teaching new perspectives and breaking through ideas of common thought - those concepts instruct students via innovative practices giving them tools to truly challenge current thought processes.

Innovation in Practice

Dr. Ness and Jack Smith, PhD, dean of the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, have developed and taught a graduate course entitled, Innovative Thinking to students from the UTHealth School of Public Health and School of Biomedical Informatics. The course is based on two basic tenants: 1) Innovative thinking can be taught; 2) Skill at creative thought is achieved through an understanding of innate cognitive barriers, application of methodological tools, and practice. Indeed, this class views the development of creative ability to be like the development of mathematical ability, that is, although some individuals are intrinsically more talented, most can reach increasingly elevated levels of competency through training.

The Innovative Thinking curriculum has the following components. First, we identify, so as to overcome barriers to creativity. Normal thinking is constrained by established cognitive biases and cognitive frames. This limits the acuity and comprehensiveness of the observations needed to consider all aspects of a problem.

A second dimension in Innovative Thinking is to provide methods for thinking out of the box. In particular, we practice techniques that increase keenness of observation, fluency of idea generation, and heuristic (non-linear) thinking.

A third dimension of the course develops individual and group dynamics. Each student is taught to trust their own instincts. From our earliest childhood experiences in school, we are taught to conform. Originality is effectively the converse of conformity, so it is considered somewhere between ignorant and subversive. By the time we get to graduate school, we are skilled at parroting rather than questioning, lest we fail. Fear of failure induces us to write jargon-laden scientific papers and fear of failure translates into writing grants that do not stray far from the mainstream of scientific dogma. In Innovative Thinking, we teach students to play and break rules and question.

The final step is application. In-class exercises allow students to practice innovation tools. Group projects are structured to heighten students abilities to pose a problem, powers of observation, and use of class insights to find innovative solutions to their problem.

Propagating Innovation

Since teaching Innovative Thinking, groups such as the National Cancer Institute; National Institute for Child Health and Disease; The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, The Institute of Medicine, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities have requested to learn about it. Students taking the course have commented that “It is the best course I have ever taken”, and “It put the fun back into science”. Students introduced to the concepts in the above venues have begged for a way to participate in the full course.

These enthusiastic responses prompted a desire to disseminate the curriculum. In the near future, Innovative Thinking will be brought to a larger audience via weekend sessions in a teach-the-teacher context. Students and would-be instructors of this method will receive hands-on training in the theory, exercises and application of Innovative Thinking. At the end of the training, future instructors should be prepared to independently offer Innovative Thinking at their institution.

INGEN:The Book

The first book from Roberta Ness, MD, MPH, on innovation has been published by Oxford University Press. Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas describes the process Dr. Ness has taught in her class and lectured on around the world.


“Whether you are a student or an established scientist, researcher, or engineer, you can learn to be more innovative. In Innovation Generation, internationally renowned physician and scientist Roberta Ness provides all the tools you need to cast aside your habitual ways of navigating the every-day world and to think “outside the box.” Based on an extraordinarily successful program at the University of Texas, this book provides proven techniques to expand your ability to generate original ideas. These tools include analogy, expanding assumptions, pulling questions apart, changing your point of view, reversing your thinking, and getting the most out of multidisciplinary groups, to name a few. Woven into the discussion are engaging stories of famous scientists who found fresh paths to innovation, including groundbreaking primate scientist Jane Goodall, father of lead research Herb Needleman, and physician Ignaz Semmelweis, whose discovery of infection control saved millions. Finally, the book shows how to combine your newly acquired skills in innovative thinking with the normal process of scientific thinking, so that your new abilities are more than playthings. Innovation will power your science.”


Roberta Ness teaches how to be a more innovative thinker. Now in a book as creative as its subject, Dr. Ness shows how, with a little know-how and a lot of practice, we can all bring out our more creative selves.”—Harvey V. Fineberg, President, Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science

“A thought-provoking dissertation on innovative thinking and how to circumvent the barriers that can inhibit our creativity. The range of ideas and approaches put forward here serve as a spur to further thought - and to action.”—Russell A. Hulse, Nobel Laureate in Physics

“Great science depends on innovative thinking. Our societal creativity and progress depends on investing in such innovation. This book argues that innovation can be taught, fostered, and nurtured as a basis for accelerating innovation. It provides the framework for fostering creativity and a toolbox teaching it. This is an outstanding contribution to our collective success.”—Linda P. Fried, Dean, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

“Can we teach people to be innovative? Roberta Ness demonstrates that the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ This is a rare book that contains both a rigorous account of the elements that foster innovation and examples that will inspire scientists, teachers, students, and anyone with a sense of curiosity to become more successful innovators.”—E. Gordon Gee, President, The Ohio State University

“Dr. Ness shows us that learning to become a better innovator is indeed possible. This book is a tremendous help for scientists, policy makers, and students of all ages.”
- Arthur “Tim” Garson, Director, Center for Public Health Sciences, and former Provost, University of Virginia School of Medicine

“Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Ideas is a superb read. The path to a strong and vibrant America today and into the future will be through the inculcation of innovation among our students across all disciplines. Roberta Ness provides substantive tools to enhance our ability for critical learning and innovation. More importantly, she emphasizes how important it is for us to inspire and facilitate innovative thinking from our students and not to inadvertently suppress students from challenging mainstream ideas, even if they are our own.”—Francisco G. Cigarroa, University of Texas System Chancellor

Publications & Talks

Ness RB. Public health research priorities for the future. Pub Health Rev 2011; 33(1):225-239.

Ness RB.  Commentary: teaching creativity and innovative thinking in medicine and the health sciences. Acad Med 2011; 86(10):1201-1203.

Ness RB. Tools for Innovative Thinking in Epidemiology. Am J Epidemiol. 2011 (in press)

Ness RB, Bower S. Innovation Incubator; Going Public: Protecting and Improving our Public Health.  Texas Medical Center News. October 1, 2011

Ness RB, AAMC Viewpoint: Creating Innovation Incubators.

[sph_whitebox title=“Talks”]

Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science

The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas

National Institutes of Child Health and Disease

National Cancer Institute

Association of Schools of Public Health

Association of American Medical Colleges

American Association of State Colleges and Universities

TEDx Houston

University of Alabama

Baylor College of Medicine

University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

Columbia University

University of Pennsylvania

University of Pittsburgh

Texas Academy of Health Educators

Duke University

University of North Carolina

Rice University Baker Institute

American College of Neuropsychopharmacology