Diversity in 21st century research

Joe DeSimone (photo courtesy of The Daily Tar Heel).
Joe DeSimone (photo courtesy of The Daily Tar Heel).

[By Joseph DeSimone]

Diversity plays a central role in the innovation process. My UNC chemistry colleagues and I emphasize diversity as part of the culture of our department, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to reflect on this.

Early in my career I was invited to be part of an innovation committee at a large European chemical company. When I walked into the first meeting, not only was the entire committee made up of all white males, but they had also all graduated from the same two groups in Europe. They all knew the same things. It was a closed environment, and frankly, it was uncomfortable. It also struck me that the group was at an inherent disadvantage, especially as an innovation committee. This experience was an important lesson that has carried through in my group’s approach for the past 20 years.

To be a leading chemistry department in the 21st century we must recognize diversity as a fundamental tenet of innovation. The best teams I have ever been a part of, that have produced the most groundbreaking and productive innovations, have been highly diverse groups.  It is interesting, and important, to note that my experience in this regard is not unique.

In his book The Difference, Scott Page discusses diversity and innovation, citing his examination of problem solving in groups: “In problem solving, diversity […] doesn’t always trump ability, but it does so far more often than we’d expect.”

It is a powerful thing to think about, and as Page points out, this does not mean an abandonment of the idea of a meritocracy. On the contrary: “Ability matters. But, here’s the catch, so does diversity. Comparisons between the two — which matters more: diversity or ability? — require some care.”

The bottom line is that we can maximize our innovation potential by emphasizing the role of diversity in the process of scientific innovation. The most successful problem solving approaches involve bringing together teams of talented people with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and world views. After all, we learn the most from those with whom we have the least in common.

If we engineer our scientific teams around this idea, and if we are deliberate in acknowledging the advantages diversity provides, then our approaches to the most difficult problems — born out of the convergence of different perspectives — will yield our most creative and enduring ideas.

When we talk about diversity in science, our conversation must span the characteristics of culture, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background, and it also must also span disciplinary boundaries. We are involved in multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and trans-disciplinary research in ways that did not exist, nor could exist, in prior decades. These approaches that blur lines — that allow us to examine the white space between disciplines — encourage meaningful dialog and lead to progress.

Next-generation leaders in chemistry must be system thinkers, have a global context, and communicate fluently across disciplines. Over centuries we have drilled down to develop knowledge and expertise in evermore specialized disciplines, and we now face a turning point. Research in the 21st century is shaping itself around the integration of diverse concepts, fields, data sets, and people to find better solutions to problems. Well-known examples have emerged in areas including tissue engineering, nanotechnology, molecular biology, and genomics. To lead as scientists in the 21st century, we must find a common language, connect the vast vaults of knowledge carved out over time from highly specialized fields, and leverage the power of diversity to define our future.

A research culture that values diversity, and that is deliberate about emphasizing it, will lead to the much-needed disruptive technologies of tomorrow that will generate jobs and improve the health and well-being of our society. This is what leadership in chemistry in the future will mean.

[DeSimone is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Chemical Engineering at N.C. State University and of Chemistry at UNC.]