Op/Ed Friday: Science and technology does not equal innovation

April 22, 2016 by Joshua
in Creativity, Education, Entrepreneurship, Visualization

I came across the infographic below and disagree with how it categorizes innovation and how it draws its conclusions.

It categorizes innovation by “marketable contributions to technology-intensive industries as award-winning innovators and international patent applications.” Then it concludes we should support STEM more.

I agree we should support STEM more, to have a more educated population. They haven’t supported their conclusion at all.

I consider myself innovative. With a PhD in physics and having helped build a satellite successfully working in space I consider myself educated in science, technology, engineering, and math. I have met many scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Very few of them have done what I would consider innovation. I have also met many non-STEM people and found them innovative.

Huge innovations come from outside STEM

The infographic’s first problem: equating innovation with STEM.

Huge innovations happen that STEM has nothing to do with. Among my current work’s greatest influences are Constantin Stanislavsky, who innovated how we teach acting, Sanford Meisner, who built on it, and John Dewey, who innovated how we teach. No one would categorize them as STEM people.

One of my great role models is Martin Luther King, who innovated in non-violent civil disobedience, building on the innovations of Gandhi, who built on innovations of people before.

Great artists innovate. Impressionism, jazz, modern dance… all innovations built by large communities of innovators. Picasso, Hemingway, Bach, Vermeer… all innovators.

STEM-trained people often slow innovation

When I was innovating technology, engineers constantly slowed our pace with irrational adherence to the status quo. As best I could tell they wanted to protect their jobs independent of the outcome.

While many mathematicians and scientists who stay in academia innovate, I interacted with plenty who haven’t innovated and never will. Many look for work just to get jobs with no intent or hope of innovating.

Innovation isn’t automatically good

The Nobel Prize exists because the guy who invented dynamite, Alfred Nobel, didn’t want history to remember him for profiting from arms based on his invention.

The collatoralized debt obligation was a financial innovation that many consider a major contribution to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2007-08.

Enron was innovative and full of STEM-trained people.

George Carlin: “The very existence of flame-throwers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

Teaching STEM doesn’t teach innovation and you can teach innovation without teaching STEM

Several of my students outside STEM innovated both outside and inside STEM areas. One came up with a medical device that is now being supported and prototyped at a medical device development company. Her field: politics. You might say the innovation needs medical engineers. Fine, but first, their level of innovation is far below hers and, second, the product also needs marketing, sales, legal help, and so on. Singling out STEM training seems disingenuous.

Another student innovated a way to get more people to help the homeless, hungry, and others. The program she envisioned helped hundreds of people, led to hundreds of people volunteering to help (who also report having benefited tremendously from the experience), got institutional support before the course ended, and continues to grow. Her field: music. No STEM necessary.

I support teaching more STEM, not self-interested unsubstantiated claims

To be clear: I don’t oppose STEM education or innovation, I’m opposing specious arguments.

I see the United States’ lack of STEM skills and knowledge as contributing to unnecessary misery and suffering. I think people becoming more knowledgeable and skilled in STEM fields improves their lives and society. I support increasing STEM for a more educated population.

I also support training innovation, which I see as orthogonal to STEM training. You can train someone in STEM who knows nothing about innovation or helping others and even undermines it. You can train people to innovate with no STEM knowledge or skills. I also teach empathy and compassion, which I suggest promote more innovation that helps people, not just blind innovation.

If you want innovation, teach innovation. That’s what I do, and I do it more effectively for not confusing it with something different, and I teach it in the context of caring about other people. It’s related to STEM, but don’t kid yourself that teaching STEM teaches innovation or helping others, though they may be accidental by-products. And don’t kid yourself that great innovations come only in STEM. Democracy was an innovation. So was our Constitution, the mini-skirt, the Fosbury Flop, the French New Wave, and the Bo Diddly beat. To discount their contribution to society only shows one’s ignorance.

If your definition of innovation doesn’t include Martin Luther King but does include the flame thrower, I suggest you reconsider what you’re promoting.


The infographic also says twelve percent of “U.S. innovators” (by their definition, which neglects innovation outside their narrow definition) but shows one in nine are women, which is closer to eleven percent. Twelve percent is closer to one in eight.

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