The Royal Society’s recent invitation to tender for research into the (business) case for diversity has grown out of a real and compelling need to provide leadership to foster a culture that focuses on scientific talent irrespective of gender, race, disability, socio-economic background or other diversity strands.V


Whilst this research has attracted some recent commentaries (Beverley Gibbs/Professor Dame Athene Donald), at the outset, and the business case is emphasised in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Tapping all our Talents report, academics learned societies and professional bodies can set standards that lead to a culture shift to ensure that appropriate data is collected, analysed and reported. This is a goal for building evidence-based approach in making the (business) case for diversity.

So let’s begin by setting out a little more detailed rationale.  We will take, as a starting point, the scientific discipline of ecology. Why? Because at its most basic conceptual level many of the tools and ideas used in ecology are drawn directly from economics.

Now, arguably, it’s time to return the favour.

The Royal Society’s policy study is to gather existing literature, research and economic data to build an evidence base for the link between diversity and productivity. Any case for diversity should rightly be premised against the moral imperative. On pragmatic grounds, this requires data and the testable (but refutable) idea that changes in diversity influence changes in productivity.

Engaging communities of academics, learned societies and professional bodies is the right thing to since it will allows us to collect, collate and analyse trends and drive that positive culture change.

More ecology. From an ecological perspective, we have a rich understanding of diversity. Nearly all measures of diversity are based on relative abundance. However, in ecosystems species are not equally abundant, inevitably some species are rare where others are more abundant – and this is often independent of species group, time and/or space – however it is how this diversity drives ecosystem productivity.

In ecosystems, resources (energy) are limited and are divided (in no doubt rich, complex ways) amongst different species. So understanding diversity is simply important as it tells us something about the way groups (species) might be organised when resources are limited.

So diversity is essential – but let’s really avoid conflating diversity and gender. Clearly they are linked but diversity has a much broader perspective. Again, taking an ecological view on this, an understanding of diversity often involves thinking about functional groups or roles of species in ecosystems. Species occupy different niches (plant eaters, carnivores, decomposers etc) – each of these roles has a different functional effect on the structure and function -productivity – of the ecosystem.

Our policy study on establishing the business case for diversity in the scientific workforce will start by tapping into the talents of chemistry departments within the UK to test whether there is a statistically meaningful correlation between some measures of diversity and some measures of the quality or quantity of outputs produced by groups on scientists. We will (hopefully) gain useful demographic (race, disability, socio-economic background, gender) information – we will use this to understand productivity output: is there critical mass, does diversity in roles (based on function, gender or both) drive science.

In making the (business) case for diversity it is the role of functional diversity that may turn out to be lynchpin (more so than simple gender equality) in seeking out scientific productivity.  The analogy to ecology may well turn out to be wrong but it gives us a frame of reference to work from to develop leadership and appropriate, expected standards.

This is a guest post for Inside Science by Dr Michael Bonsall, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

  • Dawn Bonfield

    I wouldn’t have thought that a chemistry department would be the best place to start with a study like this,as the skill set required to work in a chemistry department doesn’t necessarily need to be the most diverse in the world, does it? Something where customers, a product (other than research results) and a profit are involved would be more indicative of the business benefits of diversity, I would say.
    I agree though that ‘thought diversity’ is what counts more than straightforward gender diversity, as males and females from the same background can often provide very limited diversity.