Fostering the Science and the “Art” of Innovation

By Dustin Renwick

From Microsoft to Intuit to Ferrari, companies around the world have learned that innovation lives throughout a healthy organization.

Two years ago, EPA wanted to begin a change that would inspire more innovation in its research labs by pushing scientists to think about transformational projects.

In other words, EPA leaders wanted to ignite the passion and wonder that accompanies great science and replace ordinary thinking with “Wouldn’t it be amazing if EPA could . . . ?”

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (PIPs) were created as an internal competition to empower EPA scientists and researchers to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects.

This model dates back to at least 1948, when 3M encouraged its employees to spend 15 percent of their time on projects they found rewarding. A cultural icon, the Post-It, was among the results from that radical notion of giving employees like Art Fry the freedom to explore and tinker.

Through our first two years, 22 PIP proposals were selected from nearly 200 applications. These teams received seed funding and time to carry out pilot projects ranging from satellite-based coastal monitoring to novel methods for breaking down plastics.

Submissions are judged each year by an external panel, which takes into account a proposal’s:

  • Relevance to the Agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment.
  • Potential to dramatically change how EPA solves environmental problems.
  • Potential for significant progress toward sustainability and advancing EPA’s strategies.

Teams from the first year of PIP have submitted their final reports, and second year projects continue. The submission period for our third year closed at Thanksgiving, and those proposals are currently being judged.

I’ll periodically highlight some of the innovative ideas here on It All Starts with Science, so be sure to check back later. You can even use a Post-it to remind yourself.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

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