7 Tips to Formulate a Great Idea for Scientific Inquiry

Dawid Potgieter
Sep 14, 2020 · 5 min read

Templeton World Charity Foundation is launching a Grand Challenge for Human Flourishing in search of groundbreaking ideas.

When Dr. Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in 1952, it seemed that humanity might finally eradicate the terrible disease. Progress was swift in developed countries, but the disease persisted elsewhere. Scientifically speaking, polio had been solved, yet the challenge of launching that solution — a vaccine — across populations, borders and economic circumstances remained. In 1996 alone, polio paralyzed 75,000 children across Africa, leading South African President Nelson Mandela to initiate “Kick Polio Out of Africa,” a multinational effort to galvanize public health, scientific and educational responses to the disease.

In August, the entire African continent was declared free of wild polio. Templeton World Charity Foundation believes that this kind of international, interdisciplinary, science-based, and solution-oriented Grand Challenge approach can lead to new innovations that promote human flourishing, and we recently committed $60 million towards such a strategy. We hope that our Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing will accelerate the pace of scientific discovery, the development of innovative solutions, and the launch of new practices that make a lasting impact on human flourishing.

Coinciding with the launch of our new strategy on discovery, development, and launch of innovations for human flourishing, we recently announced an ambitious Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing grant program. The first phase of this program entails a Request for Ideas (RFI), which invites the research community to tell us where they think the greatest opportunities lie.

This Request for Ideas is exactly what it sounds like: We are seeking out new ideas from leading researchers for scientific inquiry into human flourishing. Even though this task is conceptually simple, it may be an unusual ask for many in the research community. We are not just asking for a grant idea or a big question. Instead, we invite researchers to step outside of their laboratories, forget about the constraints of traditional funding mechanisms, and dream with us. I hope this will be an exciting prospect for many, but I appreciate it may also be daunting because the kinds of ideas we seek vary substantially from the kinds of ideas that will go in a grant application. To ease the burden on our participants, I would like to share with you this seven-point guide to help you think like a program officer.

1. Think big. We are interested in breakthrough ideas in a variety of fields, not incremental progress, single experiments or purely conceptual questions. Big ideas may lead to big failures, yes, but that should not stop us from pursuing them. Likewise, we should embrace interdisciplinary thinking and inquiry. This will require thinking in terms of a portfolio of experiments, not just about a single experiment. Just as reaching the moon required breakthroughs in a wide range of fields, our RFI seeks ideas that are so ambitious that they will necessarily encompass a wide swath of scientific fields, experiments and areas of inquiry.

2. Articulate how your idea relates to human flourishing. It’s not enough to say that an area of inquiry exists. We want to know how discoveries in that area relate to and could support human flourishing. To help you think through this, you can create a logic model or draw a simple pathway to impact. What specific obstacles must be overcome to make progress? There should be a clear line between your activities and goals. Where the relationships are uncertain, you should make sure you understand the risks and can articulate them clearly. This should allow you to explain clearly how a potential scientific breakthrough could change the ways in which people live, thrive and flourish in the future.

3. Be specific. It’s tempting to be vague, especially when thinking of a big idea, but specificity is crucial. One suggestion you might find helpful is to think in terms of headlines you would want to see in 10 years if your idea for scientific inquiry were pursued. How would the world be different? What kind discoveries, innovations or interventions might come out of it? Don’t be afraid to use the tools of great science fiction — the ability to imagine a pathway to a future different from the world we live in today — to help formulate your idea.

4. Use simple terms. While the idea should be big, it also should be described in simple, jargon-free, intelligible language. Can you explain your idea to a five-year-old child or your grandmother? If not, then write it down, pick out any specialist words, and write down appropriate definitions for each of them. At the very least, you should be able to explain it to someone like a doctor, social worker, or community elder who might be interested in the topic.

5. Get honest feedback. Before you submit an idea, run it past experts in your field and other individuals whom you trust. This does not have to be awkward or formal. Buy them a drink, tell them about your idea, and ask what could go wrong. Listen for questions, concerns and criticisms, and incorporate those into your submission so as to craft the highest quality idea possible. Personally, I find that about 90% of ideas that I really like simply don’t go anywhere, so I am always grateful for good, honest feedback. It can save a huge amount of time and effort.

6. What could go wrong? The best ideas will take into account not only what happens if they succeed, but also ways in which they might fail. Tell us about potential pitfalls in the research. Those particularly enthusiastic about this area may find it useful to write out a list of potential problems and their consequences for the project. You don’t necessarily need to have solutions to all foreseeable problems, even just knowing about the potential problems can be very useful.

7. How will you solve problems? Once you’ve identified potential problems in the idea, think about how you would respond to them, should they occur. If the idea is feasible, then many of the likely problems will probably have been encountered and solved by others. You may find good solutions by speaking to people who work in engineering, business, or technology. The best solutions come from many advisors.

These are just some of the practices that we found useful as we launched the foundation’s initiative on Accelerating Research in Consciousness. I hope they will also be helpful to others. Fundamentally, the Foundation is interested in surfacing the most ambitious ideas for scientific inquiry into human flourishing. It is important to remember that the RFI is simply a search for questions, not a full-blown research proposal. We are more interested at this stage in the scope, scale and specificity of an idea than in the nuts and bolts of how you would construct a series of studies to advance the idea.

The ideas that rise to the top in this process will be thoroughly examined and expanded in collaboration with the Foundation. Will it be your idea that leads to a $20M research portfolio? Ideas can come from a range of fields — across the sciences and humanities — and those interested in submitting an idea should visit our rules and guidelines page.

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