“There is no more fertile ground for innovation than a diversity of experience. And that diversity of experience arises from a difference of cultures, ethnicities, and life backgrounds. A successful scientific endeavor is one that attracts a diversity of experience, draws upon the breadth and depth of that experience, and cultivates those differences, acknowledging the creativity they spark.”
– Professor Joseph M. DeSimone
What does it mean to say that diversity is central to innovation? Here at UNC and NCSU, Professor DeSimone and his research group have found that the best way to achieve innovation in the lab is to bring together talented, knowledgeable, and hard-working individuals with a wide range of academic backgrounds and life experiences—and stemming from these backgrounds and experiences—unique interests, perspectives, skills, capabilities, and problem-solving approaches.
In other words, with strong knowledge bases and skill sets, the potential for innovation becomes exponentially greater when our individual differences are harnessed effectively.
In his recent book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Scott Page highlights this idea:
The DeSimone Lab operates based on the idea that diversity is a fundamental tenet of innovation. Members of the DeSimone Lab bring expertise from a variety of disciplines and specialties, including Polymer Chemistry, Material Science, Chemical Engineering, Medicine, Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Physical Chemistry, and the Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Further, over the past twenty years, more than half of Professor DeSimone’s PhD graduates have been from underrepresented groups in science and engineering fields. DeSimone’s 56 total PhD graduates include 28 women, 6 African American students, and 1 Hispanic student. Additionally, of the 55 postdoctoral scholars that have come through Professor DeSimone’s lab, over 40% have been from underrepresented groups. DeSimone also directed UNC’s NSF Science and Technology Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes (CERSP). In its 10-year existence, more than 170 CERSP-supported students (27%) were African American.
With the successes that have come out of the DeSimone Lab, such as supercritical polymerization solvents and PRINT, it is hard to dismiss the notion that diversity has not played a key role at many points in the lab’s research achievements.
But does all of this mean that diversity matters more than ability, and that constructing a research group based on diversity alone will achieve better results? No. Moving outside of his model, Page points out “a fundamental insight”:
It is important, then, to strike a careful and effective balance of ability and diversity. Professor DeSimone strives to achieve this in his lab.
But beyond striking an effective compositional balance, what makes a diverse group tick? How can a group of individuals with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and heuristics produce better results in a problem-solving situation than a more homogeneous group? What conditions must be present to unleash the creative power and innovation potential of a diverse group?
For the DeSimone Group, a culture of participation is key. Contributions from all group members are essential, whether from undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, or staff researchers. Therefore, it is necessary to cultivate a culture of participation—one in which all group members feel comfortable, confident, and compelled to voice their ideas and perspectives, and further, one that values differences and dissent. In fact, dissent—even outright conflict—often leads to more lively and challenging intellectual discourse, thereby accelerating processes that lead to innovation. The key is to have an environment where such discourse is openly expressed and respectfully communicated, and received in the manner it was intended. Page points to this idea with a quote from 19th century German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic, Heinrich Heine:
but less by assimilation than by friction.
This is consistent with Professor DeSimone’s view that while brilliant ideas come from individuals, innovation is a social process that requires diversity. Friction, of one sort or another, inevitably arises in any social process. One must take advantage of it, placing a value on dissenting viewpoints and drawing insight from dialogue that arises when conflicting ideas converge.
A deliberate emphasis on diversity generates power. For a group of problem solvers, this means the power to think beyond usual paradigms, approach issues informed by many perspectives instead of few, and collaborate to unravel creative solutions to the most difficult problems.
“Driving convergence with human diversity“; DeSimone, J. M.; Farrell, C. L.; Science Translational Medicine, 2014, (6)238, 1-2.
“Scientific Diversity Interventions“; Moss-Racusin, C. A.; van der Toorn, J.; Dovidio, J. F.; Brescoll, V. L.; Graham, M. J.; Handelsman, J. Science, 2014, 343, 615.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Diversity Workshop, Diversity in the Scientific Workforce, Videocast on-demand, November 14, 2013
“Driven by diversity“; Ferrini-Mundy, J. Science, 2013, 340, 278.
Wang, Linda. “Coming Out in the Chemical Sciences.” Chem. Eng. News, May 23, 2011, 89 (21), pp. 41-44. Accessed June 3, 2011
The EngineerGirl website, a service of the National Academy of Engineering, brings national attention to the exciting opportunities that engineering represents for girls and women.
Brennan, Mairin. “Polymer workshop defers to NAACP boycott of South Carolina.” Chem. Eng. News, March 6, 2000, 78 (10), p.58. Accessed February 8, 2011. http://www.nsfstc.unc.edu/ (reprinted on NSFSTC UNC site with permission from C&E News).