Why Are Some Scientists More Innovative Than Others?

Given our tendency to say the purpose education is to prepare people for a job, I think it’s a bit odd that there is such a big gap between our emphasis on delivering a good 1960’s-style elementary school education and our emphasis on creating post-college professional skills. I suspect this is largely a function of interest group politics — a lot of people have a personal interest in high school kids learning better, but not many have an interest in understanding what makes an expert operations analyst. There’s also the fact that ensuring every 13-year-old knows algebra is a pretty good way of developing post-college professional skills.

Of course some professional skills are extremely important, and therefore it was nice to see that Robert Keller of the University of Houston looked into what characteristics make for a more innovative scientist.

A study of 644 scientists and engineers from 5 corporate research and development organizations investigated hypotheses generated from an interactionist framework of 4 individual characteristics as longitudinal predictors of performance and innovativeness. An innovative orientation predicted 1-year-later and 5-years-later supervisory job performance ratings and 5-years-later counts of patents and publications. An internal locus of control predicted 5-years-later patents and publications, and self-esteem predicted performance ratings for both times and patents.

None of the findings are too earth shattering, but they are a reminder that the socio-emotional competencies that positively influence achievement in school — things like having an internal locus and self-esteem — also positively influence performance at work. There is still no reason to abandon our efforts to perfect academic instruction for people ages 5-22 , but I do think we might be surprised how much of the heavy lifting takes care of itself if we spend more time teaching some simple behavioral and emotional management.
Keller, R. (2012). Predicting the performance and innovativeness of scientists and engineers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97 (1), 225-233 DOI: 10.1037/a0025332

2 Responses to Why Are Some Scientists More Innovative Than Others?

  1. JGB says:

    The main purpose of education is not vocational training, that is an 90 year old. The main purpose of education should be the cultivation of a person someone who can pursue eudaimonia. Professional training is a secondary consequence of this. When it becomes the primary goal it causes problems.

  2. erichorowitz says:

    I agree, but that’s not the way most people talk about it.

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