We Need to Reward Those Who Nurture a Diversity of Ideas in Science

Amy Martin for The Chronicle

March 06, 2011

Universities in the United States have long rewarded members of their science faculties based almost entirely on their records of entrepreneurial success, research results, publications, and the committees on which they serve. But that kind of system is no longer adequate.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama said that we must "out-innovate, out-educate, and outbuild the rest of the world" to respond to global competitive challenges in this current "Sputnik moment." That will only happen if professors engage more women and ethnically diverse science students, and if universities reward those professors who successfully do so. The publish-or-perish journey to tenure needs to be recalibrated if we really want faculty members to pursue and nurture the diversity of innovative scientific ideas from all students, particularly among underrepresented groups. Traditional evaluation factors alone won't get the job done; adding students' ratings won't help much, either.

The results can be spectacular when institutions reward a broader range of performance indicators. Consider the case of Lynford L. Goddard, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. An accomplished researcher, Goddard received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2010 for his work related to high-speed, chip-scale photonic systems. But he also devotes significant time to engaging high-school students and the public in engineering. He developed an innovative summer camp to provide immersive engineering experiences for young women from diverse backgrounds, and he regularly takes part in outreach events such as Family Science Days during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In fact, he just received the first-ever AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement With Science.

Goddard cites his university's reward strategies as one of the keys to his success. While innovative teaching and service are regularly assessed as part of promotion decisions, his institution defines "service" in the broadest sense by including public engagement and working with students from underrepresented groups—not just serving on university committees. And Goddard's department encourages active researchers to remain engaged in teaching and in developing cutting-edge curricula. Peer support is meaningful, too: Goddard has emphasized that many of his faculty and staff colleagues have volunteered to assist with his engineering camp, while his department head and college dean have offered praise and moral support.

At many other institutions, unfortunately, traditional reward systems only emphasize publication and grant-getting, at the expense of efforts to promote increased participation in science and engineering. Nationally, university presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs must find ways to reward faculty members for reaching out to a wider community of potential students and their families.

Besides adopting reward systems like those in place at Goddard's institution, universities could motivate their faculties by offering prizes for public engagement and for recruiting science students from underrepresented groups. Universities should also pay tribute to faculty members who are successful at nurturing diverse ideas and student involvement. Public acknowledgment of such successes—including articles in the school newspaper and the alumni magazine, as well as press releases—would send a clear message of support to the rest of the campus and the wider community.

Support like that is essential for innovation because increasing the diversity of the scientific human-resource pool will inevitably enhance the diversity of scientific ideas. By definition, innovation requires the ability to think in new and transformative ways. 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 scientific community.

Systemic, unambiguous support for public-engagement and recruitment efforts can yield impressive results. At New York University's School of Medicine, Joel D. Oppenheim, a professor of microbiology and the senior associate dean for biomedical sciences, has recruited and supported underrepresented minorities for its biomedical program and greatly increased the number of minority graduate students at the Sackler Institute. Such students have long been untapped fonts of innovation.

Oppenheim gave credit to his former associate dean, who found money in 1991 to launch a minority-recruitment program developed a year earlier with a colleague. Supervisors also encouraged Oppenheim to pursue his passion for recruiting more M.D./Ph.D. students. But he noted that he was a tenured, well-established faculty member at the time. "I don't know how young faculty members do it these days because of all the funding and research pressures," he says.

U.S. innovation has been flagging in virtually all areas except information technology and agriculture, and "eureka!" moments in the laboratory start with innovation in the classroom. Obama's recent mandate thus puts new pressure on educators to engage all students in the discovery process and nurture a wide range of ideas.

The need for Sputnik-scale advances is clear: The United States ranks sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in the rate of advancing change during the past 10 years. In fact, only about 9 percent of the country's estimated 1.5 million companies achieved innovations related to their products or processes from 2006 to 2008, the National Science Foundation has reported. At the same time, other countries are sprinting ahead of us in elementary and secondary education. Teenagers in the United States tied for 31st place in math and ranked 23rd in science on the latest Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compared the performance of 15-year-olds in more than 60 countries and regional economies.

Unfortunately, the pipeline of potential innovators in the United States is still too narrow. In 2006, underrepresented minority groups made up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, but only 9 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering populations. Women are finally earning more Ph.D. degrees than men in many fields, including the biological and health sciences. Yet beyond the doctoral level, progress has stalled.

We need to inspire all of our nation's communities to participate in the innovation challenge. But the diversity dialogue too often focuses solely on a concern for equity, or just increasing numbers, and overlooks the central role that novel and creative ideas play in the scientific enterprise. Creativity is found everywhere and needs to be nurtured. New people and collaborations bring new ideas and approaches that are critical to scientific progress, even if at times they challenge long-established paradigms.

America urgently needs to expand the array of ideas we're sampling, which means going beyond traditional communities to engage the nontraditional ones—women and minorities—much more. Increasing the diversity of people and ideas within science begins with encouraging and appropriately rewarding faculty who make this goal a priority in their careers, and for their institutions.

Alan I. Leshner is chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journals Science, Science Translational Medicine, and Science Signaling.