Global statements on diversity: Torsten John

Scientists around the world answer the same three questions...

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By Torsten John, Postdoctoral Researcher, Leibniz Institute of Surface Engineering.

In your opinion, which scientific questions will set the trends in the coming decade, and which science problems would you like to tackle?

The collaboration of scientists of different disciplines, countries and backgrounds benefits the excellence in solving complex challenges in society. While researchers need to be the experts in their field, it is as important for them to be well-informed on a broader perspective, to be able to transfer skills to new problems, and to realize that scientists are part of a political context. Innovation often requires overcoming traditional viewpoints. Publishers and reviewers should be open to new ideas, from less known authors, and subject those to the same strict and rigorous evaluation as all other works. Current double-blind review processes of some journals tackle this but it remains to be seen how feasible that approach is in the light of self-citations. Algorithms using artificial intelligence may support publishers in choosing peer-reviewers to ensure objective unbiased feedback. Reviewers and editors need to deliver quality decisions, while they are often burdened with too many requests, leading to the potential rejection of valuable works or acceptance of questionable manuscripts. This could be solved by widening the reviewer pool towards early career researchers, and implementing a tracking tool that gives credit to reviewers. The COVID-19 pandemic also revealed the opportunities of open science, data sharing and the need for thorough peer-review.

How do you experience diverse leadership, diversity in your lab, publication and peer-review, promotion and career progression, in your host country? What are the impediments for creating inclusive, equitable research labs, departments and practices?

Cooperative student-mentor relationships can ensure to build up inclusive environments for students and staff members that are welcoming for every background and in which people can raise their ideas and concerns. Working with passionate and smart people, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, or other aspects, is a key factor for success. While heterogeneity and diversity involve contrary viewpoints and unfamiliar ideas, they are the ones ensuring innovation, advancements and research integrity. One important aspect that I learned during my few years in research is to be and remain open-minded for new ideas, technologies and approaches and to take active leadership for a change for the better.

To support diverse and inclusive environments at universities, awareness should be raised for potential challenges that some groups face, and barriers should be removed. One such example is care responsibilities for children, which could be eased by supporting child-care at work and at conferences. Another important aspect of diversity is to empower and mentor underrepresented groups already early on in their development. Most careers are biased based on the wealth or academic background of the parents which unequally affects the disadvantaged ones. Such inequalities are difficult to balance later on and selection committees may focus more on the future plans, research ideas and the inherent potential a person offers rather than the achieved.

What is your message to the next generation of scientists, and what are your tips for their success?

Believe in you! Focus on what you are passionate about and ask yourself every day the why behind your studies, work and your goals. Success is a very personal dimension and it means something different to everyone. I realized early on that it does not help to compare myself with others but instead to look at whom I was yesterday, who I am today, and who I want to become tomorrow. It can also help to search for mentors that can serve as a role model and those that recognize your strengths and support you in achieving your goals. Next to my studies, I volunteered on the board of the German (JCF), European (EYCN) and International (IYCN) younger chemists networks. The leadership, intercultural and communication skills that I gained through this, as well as through my research stays abroad, largely formed who I am today.

Torsten John

Postdoctoral Researcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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