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Growing Access to Tools and Information to Spur Curiosity-Driven Innovation

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The ability to explore without fear of failure can encourage curiosity among adults, said panelists Thomas Kalil, Marcia McNutt, Arthur Daemmrich, and Katty Kay (left to right). | AAAS

Curiosity, an essential element in the scientific innovations that improve human lives, should be encouraged not just in the scientific community but in every American workplace, according to leaders in the science, business, and policy worlds.

The experts spoke during an evening celebration and exploration of curiosity, which was convened 21 October in Washington, D.C., by AAAS and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. The event was part of latter's Smarter, Together initiative, which marks 125 years in the United States for the company.

"We see curiosity as the critical impetus," said Stefan J. Oschmann, the deputy chief executive officer of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.

As part of its initiative, the company conducted a study on the state of curiosity in the American workplace. The poll of more than 1,000 American workers found that nearly nine of 10 respondents believe curious people are more likely to bring new ideas to the workplace. However, nearly 60% faced barriers to curiosity at work, and only 12% reported that their employers are "extremely encouraging" of curiosity.

To explore how to foster creativity in all workers, attendees of the event heard from several members of Congress, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, and a panel moderated by BBC World News presenter Katty Kay that featured Marcia McNutt, editor in chief of Science. McNutt was joined by Arthur Daemmrich, director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, and Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the senior adviser for science, technology, and innovation for the National Economic Council.

Only 22% of workers describe themselves as curious, according to the poll, but Daemmrich argued that everyone is born inquisitive and most have their natural curiosity tamped down. The speakers agreed that greater access to tools and information and the ability to explore without fear of failure can help encourage curiosity among adults.

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Peter Diamandis | AAAS

"We're entering the most powerful time ever in human history for curiosity," said Diamandis, the evening's featured speaker. Diamandis is the founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which designs and manages public competitions that encourage scientific development to benefit humankind, such as the Ansari X Prize for spacecraft development, awarded in 2004.

The "democratization" of technology has allowed for exponential increases in innovation, Diamandis said. It's not that humans have necessarily become smarter, he argued. Instead, we have better access to tools that enable us to reap the benefits of curiosity.

"We're heading toward a world where every single human will have a megabit connection online in five years' time," he added. This access to information and technologies such as 3D printing will lead to "an explosion of curiosity," Diamandis said.

Other speakers agreed that access to the necessary tools is essential for curious would-be innovators.

Kalil called for more investment not just in more powerful tools like supercomputers, but in more widely accessible tools, such as the $1 microscope developed by Stanford's PrakashLab.

He also cited Maker Faires and other open spaces that encourage creative engineering projects and other DIY developments.

"Someone with an idea can go to a tech shop and, for the cost of a gym membership, get access to a million dollars' worth of machine tools," Kalil said.

Within workplaces, Kalil said, spaces like the Department of Health and Human Services' IDEA Lab provide employees with time and mentoring to explore ideas they are curious about without fear of failure.

According to the curiosity survey, 99 percent of employees at "highly curious companies" reported that they are able to experiment with new and original ways to get work done.

To foster curiosity in the science community in particular, McNutt cited the importance of open data. Putting data in the public domain can allow another curious person to make new connections, McNutt said.

"One person's noise is another person's signal," she said.

McNutt also said that researchers should not be penalized not meeting their original goals, particularly when they solve other problems along the way.

"If people think they are punished for failing, they will not take risks," McNutt said.

Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee echoed the importance of curiosity and serendipity in scientific achievement, citing the Golden Goose Awards, which he spearheaded in 2012 to celebrate federally funded research that at first may seem obscure but in fact lead to major breakthroughs and widespread impact.

"Some of these happy accidents have done more to improve quality of life than anything we can imagine," Cooper said.