Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Diversity for Scientific Innovation

Alan L. Leshner, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), wrote an excellent commentary in the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled: "We Need to Reward Those Who Nurture a Diversity of Ideas in Science."

In his commentary, he argues that, by increasing the diversity of the scientific human-resource pool, we will inevitably enhance the diversity of scientific ideas, since, by definition, innovation requires the ability to think in new and transformative ways. Moreover, many of the best new ideas come from new participants in science and engineering enterprises, from those who have been less influenced by traditional scientific paradigms, thinking, and theories than those who have always been a part of the established community.

I completely agree with Mr. Leshner that we need to enhance diversity in terms of the inclusion of women and minorities, and reading his thoughtful piece truly brightened my day since it shows that others recognize the need. I would, however, add that we also need to break up disciplinary silos and to work on creating diversity across disciplines, and only then, will we be able to, as President Obama stated in his State of the Union address (coincidentally, I was in DC then for the Transportation Research Board (TRB) meeting), "out-innovate, out-educate, and outbuild the rest of the world."

Indeed, creativity is found everywhere and needs to be nurtured.

Finally, as Leshner so well elucidates, universities need to recognize faculty that work on increasing participation in science and engineering and even notes that universities should also pay tribute to such faculty through public acknowledgment of such successes through press releases, articles in university publications, etc., to send a clear message of support. Personally, working with a diverse body of students is the greatest reward since we all learn so much from one another -- how boring the world would be if there was perfect homogeneity!