Is diversity good for science? Would involving more women, ethnic minorities, and people of different nationalities and backgrounds boost innovation? We often hear about the economic and social impact of multiculturalism (whether positive or negative), but what impact does diversity have on academia and research? Having a mix of different expertise and perspectives can often bring novel solutions to problems, so does it follow that more diverse and multicultural societies are also more innovative and creative?

Scientific knowledge seeks to transcend borders and divisions, both between societies and within them. For example, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is a European research organization that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. Working together, CERN members have pioneered globally significant discoveries and innovations, from the World Wide Web to the Large Hadron Collider. Can scientists achieve more when they collaborate across borders?

Want to know more about diversity and collaboration across borders in science? We’ve put together some of the facts and figures into an infographic below (click for a bigger version).


We had a comment from Irena who argues that diversity is good for innovation because ethnically diverse schools perform better than more homogeneous ones.

To get a response, we spoke to Richard Walden, a teacher at Hugh Christie Technology College in the UK. Would he agree with Irena? In his own experience as a teacher, does diversity in the classroom have any impact on creativity and innovation?

Does it then follow that migration is good for innovation? When we interviewed William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), he argued that immigration was a positive driver of scientific innovation, saying: “[M]igrants bring a catalytic element to societies, encourage innovation, and they sometimes have a better work ethic than the native population”.

How would Richard Walden respond to that argument? Did he agree?

To get another response, we also spoke to Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, former Secretary General of CERN from 1994 to 1998. He agreed that immigration can lead to higher innovation, but argued that it wasn’t simply a case of including different perspectives. Rather, he believed it was because developed countries were attracting the best talent from around the world, and cautioned that ‘brain drain’ could lead to less innovation in developing economies:

llewellyn-smithThat’s a difficult question, because in the UK and in the US, immigration has had a very positive effect in the sense of pulling in some of the brightest minds from around the world. But it’s had a very detrimental effect in those areas. So, if the best scientists move from developing countries to where the laboratories and pay are better, it’s good for the countries that they go to but it’s bad for the countries that they’ve left.

But that’s only one aspect of diversity. We also had a comment sent in from Inés, arguing that more should be done to encourage greater gender diversity in science.

Would encouraging more women to follow science careers boost innovation? To get a response we spoke to Pilvi Kolk, a member of the management board at the AHHAA Science Centre in Estonia, which hosts exhibitions and other science events to encourage members of the public to learn more about science.

pilvi-kolk[Estonia is consistently ranked as one of the strongest countries] in science and innovation in the world. And it’s due to the fact that we have more women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) careers than any country in the world. So, I totally agree that more women should be involved in STEM careers, because women have a different point of view sometimes. I believe that our brains are different, actually. We have different functionality in our brains, and if we gather this information together then we might have more innovation…

[The way to encourage more women to take STEM careers] is giving good feedback to women and to girls, especially. If you tell them that this is a boy’s thing to play with, and this is a girl’s thing to play with, and boys should use tools in the classroom and women should just chit-chat, then of course nothing happens.

Are diverse societies also more innovative? Would involving more women, ethnic minorities, and people of different nationalities and backgrounds boost innovation? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – IAEA Imagebank
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31 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Mihai Agape

    I really think that the migration is good for STEM fields. A lot of gifted researchers and high qualified people have the opportunity to work with advanced technology, and to contribute to the discovery of new knowledge and applications. But most of the time the migration is from developing to developed countries. This can increase the gap between two kind of countries.

  2. avatar

    I must be missing something, but why would this diversity be in question?

  3. avatar
    Chris Narozny

    When it is used deliberately to distort and politicise the curriculum, as is almost always the case, then most definitely yes.

  4. avatar
    Chris Narozny

    When the teaching of maths equations is interrupted to include Babylonian and Assyrian history, or when purely technical IT classes are distorted to include discussing the rise of technology companies in India or China, just to make certain students feel “included” (which they clearly cannot feel when such topics are avoided altogether or when only places like Silicon Valley or MIT are mentioned) for instance. Both these cases happened on my watch during the past few years.

  5. avatar
    Robin Ravi

    Yep I agree it shouldn’t be gratuitous in such way but in history classes children should learn history of science Science technology studies is a good field when done the way original Miller would at UCL

  6. avatar
    Omid Danesh Khorak

    Sure, while it discouraging children of European origin, it encourages children of other part of world to mingle themselves to educational subjects of any class 8-)

  7. avatar
    Chris Narozny

    Indeed, but history of science is separate to science itself unless explicitly mentioned in the curriculum, which in the cases above it was not. And I know that there were standards compliance officers” (wtf) employed to enforce such timewasting in a college i once worked in, with lecturers being downgraded (and hence potentially dismissed) for not including such material in their lesson plans and delivery. Yet another reason i moved on.

  8. avatar
    Art Lewis

    Do communication barriers in the work place accelerate or decelerate progress. They certainly slow progress as time is needed to understand each other. In schools it has the same effect. No science, just common sense.
    Where no language barriers are present normal service should resume. Innovation and creativity are with the individual regardless of background.

  9. avatar

    Having a mix of different expertise and perspectives, yes, can be useful to reach novel solutions, but to draw from this straight forward conclusions about something called “multicultural society” or immigration is misleading, if not simply ideological drivel.
    The question raised here is first of all related to academic millieus and relations between academic (world) centres, not to migration, and particularly not to mass migration as such.

    Actually, in the example above, Estonia, a question about the impact of the Russian minority in Estonian academia would have been more interesting than the one abou women. Particularly as most policies in Estonia (as in the other Baltic states) are directed towards strengthening cultural homogeneity, not multiculturalism. And Estonia’s good ranks in STEM actually debunks all quick conclusions about about educational or scientific advantages of multiculturalism.

  10. avatar
    Art Lewis

    Yes Karl. I have heard of translators although they come at a cost and with the time it takes to translate, the progress has slowed which is another cost. Time as they say, is money. In our world business must always have a competetive edge otherwise it will not survive the conditions of market forces. I didnt make those rules. The system did.

  11. avatar

    Let’s compare USA with Japan and South Korea:

    Japan and or South Korea are very closed societies, racists indeed, and they are brilliant at innovation, because they have a very good education system, and very stressing maybe but they get from their people what they need for their societies.

    USA instead, lacks a good education system, and just makes efforts on attracting talent from abroad.

    Anyone biased towards the USA’s system would say diversity is the Holy Grail for innovation, but Japan and S. Korea demonstrates that innovation and open-mindedness has nothing to do with mixing races and cultures in a room. Specially in present days, when you can study and visit most cultures in the world.

    • avatar

      The question is “Is the EU willing to boost its own society, or will EU prefer to not care about its society and just take in people from abroad?”

      It is a matter of investment and will.

    • avatar

      “… but Japan and S. Korea demonstrates that innovation and open-mindedness has nothing to do with mixing races and cultures in a room.”

      Right! Most great scientific achievements took place in mentally open but culturally coherent societies. (Here, an extreme example is the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant who never left his homtown Königsberg.)
      Besides, multicultural and diversity are not the same, contrary to what is suggested above. Every society is “diverse” simply due to division of labour.

      As far as “multiculturalism” is concerned, its real function is mainly political and not to produce any good. Historically it was always pursued by imperial powers to make their subjects less aware of the unjust distribution of wealth and rights.

      Multiculturalism on national level goes usually hand in hand with less favourable answers to the “social question” (increasing economic inequality). I think that it is this what we observe in the EU since Maastricht.

    • avatar

      “… hand in hand with less favourable answers to the ‘social question’…”
      Bastian, thank you for saying it, I didn’t think hard on it until now, but I’m sure that converting Europe in a multicultural/multiracial entity has only one purpose.

      Europeans are the most ready people to advance democracy, and now that cohesive view of a true democracy is being broke down by multiculturalism.

  12. avatar
    Neil Clarke

    I agree, diversity does bring major benefits, but the students need to understand the language. Maybe they should be in special language schools until they can speak the language whatever country they are in. That would seem to be the first priority

  13. avatar

    “Diversity” in itself means nothing. That’s just hollow modernistic mantra and a sad example how more often than not in today’s discourse function follows form.

  14. avatar
    eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    Happy Sustainability 2015 the development of new ideas build successful innovative solutions platforms diversity is the social innovation of the future

  15. avatar

    To vie for diversity over capability is rather stupid. I wouldn’t even take it into account – treat everyone the same, and if the person shows the skills that are ideal for the job, hire them. The idea that multiculturalism leads to innovative thinking doesn’t quite follow in the sense that a different culture won’t necessarily lead to a different scientific approach.

  16. avatar
    Virginija Bireniene

    “Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
    It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
    This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.” (Scientific American)

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      @ Virginija Bireniene

      What utter gullible ignorance you ‘scientific Americans’ are. Indoctrinated with the most crass bullshit is why your country is in ruin.

      The best group of scientists on any project or thinking process is one comprised of those with the top capability, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or cultural background.

      And usually it works best when where they are coming from has the same fundamental goal or ambition. Uninhibited reason where the freedom to think without fear of political intolerance, stultifying the thought process, is the ultimate landscape for advancement.

      Politicians are, in the main, dumb self servers who go along with anything that will enhance their personal aspiration and has little or nothing to do with the betterment of mankind. So any politically correct group selected predominantly to appease political ideology will never and can never be the ultimate basis for claiming to be superior in any form. It is in its very foundation ‘inferior’ as selection is based on a false premise.

      Example: Are the best horses to run in a race of maximum velocity usually found to be made up of all different colours and breeds rather than simply choosing those with proven ultimate speed?

      Watch Seabiscuit.


  17. avatar

    Have the biggest scientists in history been the offsprings of diverse environments/ I don’t think so…trying to convince us that taking in people from third world places has its benefits/ fail…

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