The academic inventor


For the last two weeks, I’ve been watching stories on inventors. First, there was a story on Trevor Baylis who was the inventor of the wind-up radio and who, unfortunately, passed away earlier this month. Then there was another story on John C. Taylor, who was the inventor of the thermostat controls which turns off the kettle. Both of these making a large impact on society. What struck me about both of these inventors is that once they had made their invention, they still went on invented different things. Particularly, Trevor Baylis who had some really outside-of-the-box inventions.

This got me thinking about academics and wondering to what extent do our academics are encouraged to think outside-of-the-box and have crazy ideas, i.e. be an academic inventor. I realise not very much, our academics in their research and teaching tend not to stray from doing a particular research or teaching approach once they find that something works. There is little room for invention.

I have to say this has been a bug-bear with me since my days as a research student in Engineering studying scientific research methods. I had noticed that scientific research (unlike some engineering research) did not encourage inventions instead what it encouraged was fine-tuning. For example, the scientific method by its nature encouraged researchers to change some tiny aspect of their research each time they wanted to do a new research project. For example, a scientist might say, you know what, Chloride didn’t work in this experiment, let’s now try another halogen element, like Fluoride and see what happens. And this perpetuates a whole set of research which is just fine-tuning a particular area of research. But this does not create any new thought or new invention. And the same happens in teaching.

I’ve been thinking what makes people fine-tune rather than invent. The quickest answer is to say the external forces such as governmental regulations such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) or Research Excellence Framework (REF) have encouraged this culture. But when I was an engineering student, these were not in existence. One possible explanation is that people do it because it is “safe”. Doing the same thing with fine-tuning makes people feel or project the idea as if they are doing something without having to do anything risky. They will be perceived as working “hard” on research and on teaching by fine-tuning.

But this behaviour does not create innovations or inventions. To create inventions and innovations we need to try different things, we need to do crazy ideas – and possibly only one will work, like the wind-up radio for Trevor Baylis and the others will fail miserably. But to get there in universities, we need to make academics know it is fine to fail, once we keep trying out different things. As a mathematics educator, I talk about the way we should help students their problem-solving skills is by allowing them to feel safe when they fail and encouraging them to keep trying different approaches until they solve the problem.

But at universities, this is not the approach we take with academics we do not encourage them to try and fail; we always try to spin our failure as a positive thing and then try and fine-tune the failure (in other words we start investigating, why did it fail, what could we do differently) to demonstrate that there is still some impact to be had from it. Instead, we should say “that doesn’t work, yes we’ve used up some time and money, but that doesn’t work. Let’s try something radically different”. So, instead of innovation and inventions, we get more fine-tuned nothingness.

This, therefore, comes down to the purpose of the university, something which I discussed in my post The extrinsically motivated university, is the university about creating innovations and inventions that can actually help mankind or about creating fine-tuned nothingness that pretends to demonstrate impact.

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