AAAS Op-Ed: “Reward Those Who Nurture a Diversity of Ideas in Science”

At a time when President Obama has called for the next “Sputnik moment,” universities should reward faculty members for engaging a broader student population in science, thereby promoting diverse new ideas, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Increasing the diversity of the scientific human-resource pool will inevitably enhance the diversity of scientific ideas,” said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science. “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.”

Strictly rewarding entrepreneurial success, research results, publications, and the committees on which faculty serve “is no longer adequate,” Leshner wrote; institutions should define faculty success more broadly to include public engagement and working with students from underrepresented groups. Universities also could motivate faculty members by offering prizes for public engagement and for recruiting a more diverse student community, and through recognition in campus publications and media materials, he added.

“The results can be spectacular when institutions reward a broader range of performance indicators,” Leshner said in the commentary published 6 March. He described Lynford L. Goddard, winner of the first-ever AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science, as an educator who is successfully promoting transformative thinking among students, and being rewarded for it. Goddard, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is an accomplished researcher who investigates high-speed, chip-scale photonic systems. He received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2010. But Goddard also “devotes significant time to engaging high-school students and the public in engineering,” and his university has recognized that work, Leshner wrote.

Alan I. Leshner

His Chronicle op-ed further cites the recruitment efforts of Joel D. Oppenheim, a professor of microbiology and the senior associate dean for biomedical sciences at New York University’s School of Medicine. “Systemic, unambiguous support for public-engagement and recruitment efforts can yield impressive results,” Leshner said. Oppenheim, for example, credits his former associate dean with finding money in 1991 to launch a highly successful minority-recruitment program. Other supervisors encouraged Oppenheim to pursue his passion for recruiting more M.D./Ph.D. students. As a result, his initiatives have helped to greatly increase the number of minority graduate students at the Sackler Institute.

But traditional reward systems at many other institutions “emphasize publication and grant-getting, at the expense of efforts to promote increased participation in science and engineering,” Leshner said.

The pipeline of potential U.S. innovators is too narrow, he wrote, and should be expanded by encouraging faculty members who excel at engaging all students to contribute new scientific ideas. “America urgently needs to expand the array of ideas we’re sampling, which means going beyond traditional communities,” Leshner concluded.


Read the full Chronicle of Higher Education commentary by Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science. [Also available as a PDF]