Photo credit: D. Angeler.

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Experts increasingly recognize that collaborations among scientists from different fields and actors outside academia are required to deal with the vexing challenges that arise from environmental and societal change. To this end, scientists and members from the private sector must find novel solutions for problems that are inherently complex, such as sustaining food production for an increasing human population while our current climate is rapidly changing.

This paper suggests ways that researchers can structure such collaborations to enhance the exploration of creative solutions for challenges affecting complex social-ecological systems. It suggests, for example, that incorporating the arts in the process of scientific inquiry can stimulate creativity and facilitate the discovery of novel solutions. That such a strategy is already pursued is shown by the French army, which is recruiting science fiction writers to help military strategists anticipate future threats to national security. It also speculates that considering areas of the humanities that are traditionally not considered as scientific (e.g., spirituality) or drawing inspiration from actors with very different perceptions of the world, such as indigenous peoples, or those with psychiatric conditions, might be beneficial for creative research.

However, agencies funding scientific research currently do not endorse the incorporation of such aspects in research and the current academic system rewards rapid and high productivity, which is reflected in the “publish or perish” mantra. These biases build the existential foundation of scientists, particularly for early-career scientists that strive for permanent positions and eschew novel collaborations. However, an exclusive focus on productivity is at odds with any creative endeavour aimed at generating novel knowledge, which is often generated serendipitously. This makes any scientific pursuit aimed at generating new knowledge risky, not only for funding agencies that are interested in seeing value for their money, but also for researchers who need to deliver products. Taken together, this suggests that the current academic and funding structure is not well poised to facilitate research collaborations geared towards the generation of new knowledge, and potentially novel scientific disciplines and paradigms. However, this paper and an increasing amount of research suggest how science can be transformed to cope with this challenge.