Diversity in science: Brake or acceleration?

An essay by Prof. Dr. Ulrich Dirnagl, Secretary of the Einstein Foundation Award, for the supplement of the Tagesspiegel on Berlin Science Week 2023, published 11 October 2023. Translation by Nivene Raafat and Ros Mendy.

The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines and recent breakthroughs in AI research are just two examples of the spectacular advances made by science in the past few years. But if we look past these headline-grabbing developments and examine the research system more broadly, we see a much less rosy picture, in spite of the fact that the world has never had so many active researchers: 90% of all the scientists that have ever lived are alive today – and every year they publish millions of articles.

Yet we are seeing a drop in major scientific advances. “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time” was the title of a high-profile study recently published in Nature. How can it be that despite an exponential growth in research, we are less likely to see something truly groundbreaking? Do we already know (just about) everything there is to know? Were previous generations of scientists simply more brilliant? Have the world’s inner workings become too complex for us to understand? Is there too much knowledge and we just can’t keep up? Or is the quality and originality of research in gradual decline?

Reviewers prefer "similar research"

Or might there be a fundamental problem with the way researchers and scientific projects are selected? Effective knowledge generation depends not only on the quality of researchers’ education but on research conditions and the criteria that determine how research funds are allocated. Here peer review systems have become standard practice globally. Funds are not simply distributed equally but allocated by specialists who evaluate the work of other scientists. This sounds logical, but the process also has its flaws, and these have been greatly exacerbated by the considerable rise in research and scientific output. This is because scientists now largely judge research based on “excellence” and “originality”. These terms are social constructs that tell us little about how good a research project is and everything about the person passing judgment. Reviewers tend to prioritize research that resembles their own. And as it is existing scientists who select and grant funding to future generations of researchers, and because conscious and unconscious bias means these individuals are likely to prefer those who are like them and share their beliefs, research teams are becoming less diverse.

The system is driving this bias. Selection processes are presided over by non-diverse commissions whose members reach similar decisions as they share the same set of values. Projects and candidates that deviate from the norm, and are thus deemed “risky”, are less likely to be selected. This also leads to resources being concentrated in certain areas: “For to everyone who has, more will be given,” as the Bible says.

Leading scientific organizations and research funding bodies around the globe have been bemoaning the lack of diversity in research for several years. It is the proverbial “old white men” (for those professors who have made it to the top are still predominantly male) who get to decide what research is conducted and by whom. We need only look at the members sitting on the commissions and councils of the German Research Foundation or the list of Nobel Prize winners. This lack of diversity among decision-makers is, unsurprisingly, impacting diversity in research and among scientists.

It's not just about gender

When we speak of diversity, we aren’t simply referring to gender: Factors such as ethnicity, age, skills, cultural and socioeconomic background, and “atypical” career paths play an equally important role. In the German research system, efforts are still being centered around increasing the percentage of women, so the concept of diversity remains limited in scope. Although, in many areas, both genders are reasonably well represented among early career researchers, this gradually changes as careers progress. When it comes to professors and institute directors – i.e. those who call the shots within the system – positions are predominantly held by German men who have typically all been socialized in a similar way. We end up back where we started: The system is designed to prevent change. It thus comes as no surprise that it is often established scientists who take issue with the inclusion of “diversity” as a criterion for evaluating research.


It is undoubtedly plausible that diversity could make research more innovative, creative, robust, original, and global, while improving problem-solving, quality, cooperation, and engagement with underrepresented communities. Research questions might also be formulated more broadly, increasing the overall relevance of research findings. This has also been verified by several studies. However, this research is correlational and, in most cases, not based on specific, controlled interventions. There is therefore still broadly a lack of empirical data on how diverse theoretical approaches and teams could positively impact research quality. Most likely, this data gap is also one of the reasons why efforts made by universities and research funding bodies to boost diversity, inter- and transdisciplinarity, as well as team science, have so far shown little success. Skeptics point to the poor availability of data and warn against the unintended negative consequences of altering the status quo. All of this means that a female candidate with a less conventional path into research, or from a minority ethnic background, will still struggle to compete against a male scientist who has been published in Nature.


There is an urgent need for data and knowledge on this issue, especially among future generations of researchers who will need to find answers to the global challenges we face. The Einstein Foundation Award for Promoting Quality in Research in cooperation with the QUEST Center for Responsible Research at the Berlin Institute of Health, together with the Berlin University Alliance and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, is therefore inviting early career researchers from around the world to share ideas and work together to find solutions to the diversity conundrum. The insights gained from this brainstorming event will be further developed by an expert panel, who will discuss the issue in front of an international audience at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde on November 3 as part of Berlin Science Week. (more on the event)