Paul Stamets is a Lemelson Invention Ambassador, part of a program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He uses nature to help solve problems ranging from improving bee health to creating a healthier environment. Paul is well-known for his research, inventions, speaking, and writing about fungi and mycelium and the incredible roles they play in our lives. The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador Program celebrates inventors like Paul, who offer big solutions to a myriad of complicated global problems. If we can showcase these inventors, better understand their needs, and create venues for discussion between inventors, the public, government, universities, and industry, we believe the world will be a better place.
Spending time with the talented inventors who are part of the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador Program, we’ve come to realize there are people firmly on a path to revolutionize solutions to our global problems through invention. The question we—as a society, as a nation, and as a global community—must ask is: How can we help create more of these people, for whom incrementalism, cautiousness, and “in-the-box” thinking do not apply?
In the United States, we have some programs in place to encourage and rationalize invention, like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which runs across 11 participating federal agencies. But we also realize that spurring invention requires profound cultural shifts. Being an inventor means holding tight to one’s curiosity about life, and it means solving problems by reimagining and acting on ideas. This is not easy when most of our systems and organizations require conformity.
The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador Program has helped us see that there is no one-size-fits-all characterization of inventors. They can work alone or in teams. They come from all walks of life and tackle all kinds of problems. They change the kinds of devices used in the operating room, find new methods to cure diseases, design better wheelchairs, invent new voting machines, and create non-linear solutions to our energy needs. They build new software, and they change the way we take pictures and help keep milk cold on the way to the market. They are creative in their use of science and products, using nanomaterials, mushrooms, synthetic biology, peptides, thermal batteries, and even aquarium pumps to create novel ways of doing things, new products, new solutions to problems—inventions!
After working closely with our ambassadors and coming to understand both their successes and challenges, we believe there are five key ways to help change cultural assumptions and allow invention and innovation to flourish.
First, global societies must embrace and cultivate traits like lifelong passion for curiosity and learning, risk-taking, failure, tenacity, out-of-the-box thinking, collaboration, and support for the unknown or hard-to-explain.
Second, in countries like the United States, we must continually improve mechanisms of support for these innovative thinkers by having conversations and taking action to ensure we have enough vehicles in place to incentivize invention. Everyone has a role to play. That means the federal government must incentivize and set policies that encourage and curate the inventive mindsets necessary to solve big problems, while continuing prize challenges and various programmatic funding opportunities. Our K-12 system is perfectly poised to cultivate curiosity, hands-on learning, and the desire to solve world problems. Industry can help showcase the outcome of invention and use inventions to reach new heights and productize. Policymakers must be ever vigilant in their support for invention, a healthy invention system, and the necessary adoption and innovation that follows. As individuals we also have a role to play by encouraging new ideas and the people who want to take action.
Third, societies must commit to trying new ideas and products. We are too often sluggish and hesitant to allow disruptors to disrupt. In other words, we need to learn more about what we don’t yet know is possible and give people the opportunity to help solve critical problems and change our world.
Fourth, globally, we need to highlight, celebrate, inform, influence, and inspire people about the realities of invention and the possibility of becoming an inventor.
Finally, as a global community we need to be excited about the possibilities for the future. We have many seemingly intractable problems, but we also have incredible people in the world looking at problems and solutions in new ways.
It’s easy to get caught up in pundits’ and politicians’ “doom-and-gloom” diagnosis of the world in which we live. But we need only look to our brave and brilliant Ambassadors to remain hopeful and optimistic about the outlook for our future. From Congress to kindergarten classrooms to our own kitchen tables, we all have a role to play in encouraging more inventors and innovators to help solve real-world problems in better ways than we’ve ever managed before.
Comedy is the director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity at AAAS. Rao is a 2016 USA Eisenhower fellow. Both work on the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Program.