Geology & Geophysics Opinion

Diversifying Skills and Promoting Teamwork in Science

Truly innovative research requires intellectually diverse teams of scientists who are encouraged to excel in the tasks where their talents lie.

By , Sujay S. Kaushal, and Klement Tockner

Increasing diversity in science is an important and widely recognized goal: Significant effort has gone into recruiting a broad spectrum of demographic groups to the field. However, one aspect of scientific diversity is largely overlooked, in part because of the excessive use of a few quantitative metrics in assessing research performance. Here we examine this issue in the context of the academic science community.

We argue that widespread assessment based on a few quantitative metrics has substantially reduced the diversity of skills and teamwork in science. A further depletion of diverse personalities and undervalued skills may seriously impair innovativeness and will favor research along established pathways rather than transformative outside-of-the-box science.

Some scientists are good at acquiring grant money, others are good at communicating research to peers, and still others are good at teaching or outreach activities. Using a single, limited set of metrics (for example, grant money and number of scientific publications) to assess the suitability of candidates across these types of scientists is unreasonable.

If the hiring and promotion strategy of scientific institutions changes so that candidates are selected on the basis of how their individual skills complement the team, scientists will be allowed—and even have an incentive—to excel in the tasks where their talents lie.

Mainstream Metrics Lead to Mainstream Science

For governments and organizations that decide on scientific priorities and funding, the ability to assess the performance of individual scientists, institutions, and entire nations is vital. For example, academic scientists’ performance is now commonly evaluated using quantitative metrics such as the h-index for measuring their publications’ impact, the number of publications, or acquired grant money [Weingart, 2005; Kaushal and Jeschke, 2013; Arlinghaus, 2014]. As a consequence, scientists and heads of institutions adapt their behaviors and strategies in order to optimize their performance according to such metrics.

It is important to realize that current metrics represent only a fraction of the key responsibilities of scientists. The widespread use of these quantitative metrics can lead to the selection and promotion of a uniform type of scientist.

Institutions differ in the way they assess scientists, but the quantitative metrics that many use for hiring and promotion decisions focus on acquiring grant money, performing research, and communicating research to peers. Teaching, mentoring, engaging with the public, in-depth reviewing of manuscripts and grant proposals, and serving on panels of experts usually do not factor strongly in performance evaluation metrics [Arlinghaus, 2014]. Although these tasks play a key role in helping our scientific system to function and many institutions ask for evidence that researchers “have done their share,” scientists’ performance in these areas is rarely important for hiring and promotion decisions.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Also, researchers are typically assessed by individual-level metrics, whereas their contributions as members of research teams are not explicitly considered and valued. Bright scientists with skills not represented by current metrics or whose contributions as team players are overlooked might easily become frustrated and leave science, joining public and private organizations where their skills and contributions are more highly valued.

Successful sports managers and hiring managers at leading companies carefully select team members on the basis of how their individual skills complement those already present in a team. A possible path forward to promote intellectual diversity in scientific institutions is to recognize that one size (i.e., skill set or personality type) does not fit all.

We suggest that scientific institutions reward teamwork, which recognizes the need to look for complementary skills in candidates. To be successful in the long term, team members must exhibit a variety of skills beyond a common foundation of basic skills.

Successful teams of scientists require a mix of skills, and no one scientist is equally strong in all areas. For example, Charles Darwin had outstanding skills in performing research and communicating research to peers, but it is doubtful that he would have been successful in acquiring long-term grants. Credit: Modified from a portrait by George Richmond, image in the public domain
Successful teams of scientists require a mix of skills, and no one scientist is equally strong in all areas. For example, Charles Darwin had outstanding skills in performing research and communicating research to peers, but it is doubtful that he would have been successful in acquiring long-term grants. Credit: Modified from a portrait by George Richmond, image in the public domain

Building on Individual Strengths

Even the most accomplished scientists have uneven skills, allowing them to excel in some tasks but not in others. For example, Charles Darwin had outstanding skills in performing research and communicating research to peers. However, Darwin was independently wealthy and could pursue his research interests without developing the skills to acquire long-term grants [Loehle, 1990].

A short list of the basic skills needed by an academic research scientist includes

  • acquiring grant money
  • performing research
  • communicating research to peers: writing scientific publications, presenting results at scientific conferences, etc.
  • serving as an expert: service in the scientific institution (e.g., administrative service, serving on faculty panels) and service in the wider scientific community (e.g., reviewing manuscripts and grant proposals, editorial work, serving on scientific committees)
  • engaging with the public (outreach): discussing research results with public stakeholders, serving as a consultant, etc. [Pace et al., 2010]
  • mentoring
  • teaching

Each individual scientist has a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Fostering individual areas of strength promotes diversity in science, whereas selecting a limited set of skills reduces scientific diversity.

Building Diverse Teams

We argue that scientific institutions should better recognize the value of diversity of individual characters, skills, and positions, and they should also better value the potential for teamwork [Weingart, 2005; Arlinghaus, 2014]. Although scientists often view themselves as leaders of research teams, we are also part of broader teams—departments, universities, and academic communities.

More specifically, we propose that hiring committees should better value the diverse types of scientists that an academic institution needs to achieve an optimal mix of staff scientists and to promote overall performance. A look beyond academia might be helpful in this regard, as successful sports clubs and leading companies have much experience in hiring individuals that complement the team and promote teamwork.

Building teams that consist of diverse types of scientists will promote intellectual diversity. Also, research has shown that diverse teams often outperform homogeneous groups, even homogeneous groups of high-performing individuals [Hong and Page, 2004]. The promotion of intellectually diverse teams can thus create synergies and accelerate scientific progress—it can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.


Arlinghaus, R. (2014), Are current research evaluation metrics causing a tragedy of the scientific commons and the extinction of university-based fisheries programs? Fisheries, 39, 212–215.

Hong, L., and S. E. Page (2004), Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 101, 16,385–16,389.

Kaushal, S. S., and J. M. Jeschke (2013), Collegiality versus competition: How metrics shape scientific communities, BioScience, 63, 155–156.

Loehle, C. (1990), A guide to increased creativity in research—Inspiration or perspiration?, BioScience, 40, 123–129.

Pace, M. L., et al. (2010), Communicating with the public: Opportunities and rewards for individual ecologists, Front. Ecol. Environ., 8, 292–298.

Weingart, P. (2005), Impact of bibliometrics upon the science system: Inadvertent consequences?, Scientometrics, 62, 117–131.

—Jonathan M. Jeschke, Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Berlin, Germany; Institute of Biology, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany; and Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, N.Y.; email: [email protected]; Sujay S. Kaushal, Department of Geology and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland, College Park; and Klement Tockner, IGB; and Institute of Biology, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Citation: Jeschke, J. M., S. S. Kaushal, and K. Tockner (2016), Diversifying skills and promoting teamwork in science, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO049417. Published on 8 April 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0