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Science diversified: Cosmopolitan campus

Marylka Yoe Uusisaari Unit.

Credit: Kenji Togo

Diverse teams, diverse challenges: Dom Byrne talks to research leaders whose teams come from all over the world.

Different countries have varying working cultures — what works in China will not necessarily work in, say, Mexico.

But what if you brought these cultural perspectives together in one place. How might that change research output?

The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, an island university off the coast of Japan, has developed a research facility with an ethos based on international diversity. Currently, 83% of its PhD students come from abroad.

Researchers there describe the challenges and opportunities of working in a university with no departments, and where the campus layout encourages interdisciplinary collaboration.

This episode is part of Science Diversified, a seven-part podcast series exploring how having a more-diverse range of researchers ultimately benefits not only the scientific enterprise, but also the wider world.

Each episode in this series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council (ISC) about how it is exploring diversity in science.

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Working Scientist podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.


Paid content: International Science Council (ISC)

The ISC is exploring diversity in science. In this episode, it looks at how including multiple perspectives can create better science.

Jayati Ghosh argues that a lack of diversity in economics has made the discipline less able to actually understand the economy.

Dan Inkoom discusses how the general public in Ghana have much to contribute to his field of urban planning.

And Simone Athayde explains how working with Indigenous communities in the Amazon helped researchers to discover new things.

Find out more about this about this type of paid content.


Diverse teams, diverse challenges: Dom Byrne talks to research leaders whose teams come from all over the world.

David Payne: 00:04

Hello, I'm David Payne, careers editor at Nature. And this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. In this seven part series, Science Diversified, we're exploring how the scientific enterprise truly benefits when you have a team of researchers from a broad range of backgrounds, disciplines and skillsets.

Each episode ends with a 10 minute sponsored slot from the International Science Council about its work on diversity.

In this second episode, we're off to Japan. We’re visiting the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology to see how its model of international recruitment translates into scientific excellence.

Peter Gruss: 00:45

I've seen hundreds of labs in my life. But if you step into this place, you can still see this is special. It's the highest level of internationality that I have ever experienced….

(Hi, my name is Peter Gruss, and I'm the president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.)

...and this internationality, of course, has a basis in a very simple principle. The founding fathers have established the principle that OIST should always hire more than 50% of the professors and 50% of the graduate students as non Japanese.

So by now we have about 60-65% of our professors are non Japanese, and 80% of our graduate students are non Japanese, coming from all over the world.

Okinawa is one of the islands that belong to Japan, and it is a couple of thousand kilometres away from the mainland. And we are actually in a subtropical climate, which is wonderful.

And all of you are encouraged to go into Google Earth, and look where OIST is because we are always looking at the sea every day. The sea is very warm, we have reefs, coral reefs, and the coral reefs are alive, very little coral death. So I can, I can encourage you to look at it not just from the scientific point of view, but also from the aesthetics point of view. And from the way of life point of view. It is good to live here.

The reason for why OIST is doing better science is really on the one side - and I fully believe this because we would otherwise not be able to recruit these people.- it's the high trust.

Because we get people from the United States, from the UK, from France, from Germany, top people who apply. Why? Because they are fed up with writing grants. They want to do something creative and have a five year block of time, in order to develop a new idea at the cutting edge of research.

That's the first thing. The second thing is the internationality. So I think this internationality is really a big point for OIST because see, the Japanese market is about, let's say give and take, 130m people. The world market is about close to 8 billion. So all we do, we don't look at the passport. We look at the quality of the people.

Marylka Yoe Uusisaari: 03:52

My name is Marylka Yoe Uusisaari but Yu is much easier and I go by that name only.

I was born in Finland and grew up in Finland. I'm half Polish though. And currently I'm an assistant professor at OIST. I am working in the field of systems neuroscience, motor control, neuroscience, and cerebellar research.

There are the things that, of course, are obviously different, that we are in a place we do where we don't have any other institutes nearby. We are remote, and we have a beach, and we have nice architecture.

These are the things that people often notice when they come and visit. Also, the fact that we don't have departments. It's the fact that we don't have them is very deeply ingrained into everything we do. So we absolutely, in every possible way, try to avoid any kind of segregation of research fields into topics or buildings or something, which is a really, really important thing. Also quite challenging.

And then this idea that we are really trying to focus on supporting individual researchers. So that probably would be, of course, more significantly, individual PIs, and their visions and their ambitions and their ideas without so much of manipulating or controlling that.

So we are given a lot of freedom in the way we are conducting our work, which is very, very nice and inspiring, of course, also very challenging. Sometimes it maybe would be nice that somebody would tell you what kind of research is supposed to do, to be successful. So, it's kind of like, freedom has its costs.

What's so specific about us is that, I wouldn't be surprised if it would be somehow the most diverse university on the planet, if we just look from the point of view of how many nationalities we have.

So among the roughly maybe 1500 people that are on the campus working, we have people from roughly maybe up to 60 different countries, when we take together the faculty and researchers as students.

So that is an amazing diversity and amount of different languages that are being spoken in the corridors.

And so yes, my team has, we are seven/eight members, and every single person is from different countries from all different continents.

They are, they are from Turkey, China, Poland, France, Italy, India and Malaysia.

Of course, the operating language is English, always.

You might think that enough to just bring different people together. So that is just the first step. So now think about like this, we are maybe 1500 people, out of which maybe half of all non-Japanese. On top of the diversity, there is also the possibility of quite large fracturisation.

So the community can fracture very easily if you are very diverse. And you don't take special measures and like attention and care, to build that sense of community across all of these nationalities and people.

So everybody comes with their own background, their own cultural views and whatever, the way they grew up their religions and customs. And it is not easy. And probably not even possible to always assume that everybody who comes to a diverse place like OIST would be already prepared for the diversity.

So we are here putting a lot of effort into all kinds of multinational and diversity events, and trying to educate people about cultures.

And so these items are things that are driven from top. So we have all kinds of national holidays, and bringing, highlighting different cultures.

And I think this is important to remember. Just that you bring people from different backgrounds, different minorities together and make them work together does not necessarily immediately lead to a good and harmonious, diverse workplace. So you need to put the next step.

Denis Konstantinov 08:31

So my name is Denis Konstantinov. Currently, I am a faculty member of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and a professor. And also I run an experimental group, an experimental unit. So we study experimental physics. So in particular, some quantum phenomena in condensed matter systems.

So originally, I'm from Russia. So I got educated in Russia. Then I went to the US for my PhD. I graduated from Brown University in physics, and in 2004, I moved to Japan.

Yes, well, I have quite an international diverse unit. So I have people from Ukraine, Canada, Japan, and students from Taiwan and China, USA.

Well, I mean, of course, one thing about international people from other countries: so the education background is very important. So well at least in the beginningI saw that education background is very important. So I always keen on working people from these people from, for example, Russia and Europe because they know that education background is very good.

And the US is different. So in the USA, the way scientists work is different. They may not realise that much in education background, but they have this they can quickly connect different things. And they actually very efficient. Maybe even more efficient. So I always try to kind of so to communicate with these kind of people with good education background, so….

Amy Shen: 10:12

Okay, so I'm Amy Shen. I'm a professor at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. Yeah, I was born in Shanghai. And so I, you know, I grew up in China, I went to college in China, and then applied for graduate school, I moved to the United States. My expertise is in fluid mechanics. So I study how to move liquids, how to manipulate them inside very small scale channels on the order of 10 to 100 microns.

So just to give you a sense, so so for like a single hair, a single hair strand, it's on the order of 15 microns. So everything we do, so you have to kind of use the microscope, and to view that you know, how cells move, and how to, for example, deliver drugs. So into a tumour, that kind of stuff.

So I tell my students and postdocs they are kind of like a superhero with one kind of very special superpower.

So we can learn from each other, and also make things work too. Because if we want to work on developing something related to biotechnology, so everything has to work, each component, and so that has been really special. So, so I cannot do that, if I'm in a kind of a traditional university.

People who are educated in US or Europe, or from from Asia, from China, so we operate slightly differently.

And so that's what I notice, for example, you know, with my Japanese postdoc, and colleagues, so they're, like, very focused, and they're really good. It's kind of, you know, the, the 10,000 hour concept, so you become the master of the master.

And so based on, but I think it's also related to personality, right, and, and so on. But I think in US, at least, based on my training, and also the research career, a lot of times, so we're kind of forced, and also encouraged to kind of reinvent ourselves.

Every few years, there is a cycle kind of, you know, even the research topics they select, some of them, they're more focused on, you know, one thing, and they, they have been working on them for many years, and they keep, you know, pushing, and, you know, to reach the maximum height, and that's necessary. That's important, right?

That's why in Japan, you see how many Nobel prizewinners there are. I think that's based on that determination. Other researchers are more maybe versatile. So they also, you know, they like to work on different problems every couple years, I wouldn't say more creative, just more maybe open minded, and, you know, like to reach out to different, you know, topics and disciplines.

And so inside OIST I think what's really special is it allows us different types of, you know, people, I think it's a very flexible and open environment.

And so that's why I think it's very helpful if you bring these people together, and then you can actually, I guess it's more likely to, to make some breakthroughs.

Peter Gruss: 14:09

If you then look into it, you can see the cross interdisciplinarity, which is also laid out in every building. The entire architecture of our labs makes room for all disciplines. We have meetings and of course, what we hope is that this mix, it is arbitrary mix by the time of hiring, but this arbitrary mix will allow people to have serendipity meetings, with the hope that the more they meet, the more they mix, the more they have to meet at machines that are common to all, that the more the likelihood will be that they can come up with something completely new.

David Payne: 15:03

Now that's all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by the International Science Council, which looks at why diversity is so critical to advancing science and the steps we can take to improve it. I'm David Payne, careers editor at Nature. Thanks for listening.

Jayati Ghosh 15:23

All of the major problems of our time, the pandemic, it changes the massive inequalities, the nature of fiscal responses, and so on. The most interesting answers come from the economists are largely ignored by the mainstream and who are not taught to students in colleges and universities.

Marnie Chesterton 15:49

Welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, where we're exploring diversity in science.

I'm Marnie Chesterton, and in this episode, we're looking at how multiple perspectives can create better science, whether you're devising economic policy, planning a city or protecting natural resources.

Science is a team effort. All the sciences face complex challenges, which require diverse viewpoints, ideas and thinkers. But how can we put these ideals into practice? As part of a recent project, the ISC has been examining what the post pandemic age means for economics, and diversity has been a key theme.

According to Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the US, it's a discipline that needs to be more open to change.

Jayati Ghosh 16:43

I do feel that the economics discipline has actually got more and more impoverished over the last half century, because it has moved away from the recognition that economics is a social science or rather broadly, a study of society in its economic aspects, which means that it is necessarily more open to debate, that it is less purely scientific in terms of the absolute objectivity of certain conclusions, that it has more need to recognise the other social forces, political, anthropological, cultural, power imbalances. It has to recognise all of those things, when it actually analyses the economy.

We moved away from that to a notion of economics as being subject to some iron laws. And being very, very technical in the understanding in a way that has diminished the discipline and has diminished our ability to actually understand the economy.

We make models which are based on very restrictive assumptions, which somehow assumes that the underlying assumptions are correct. And they're not.

But economists are often surprised when the economic reality turns out to be very different. The global financial crisis was a famous example. I think the Queen of England famously remarked, “why did none of you see it coming?” Economists whom we call, you know, heterodox, or pluralists who have who recognise these different possibilities, they had been warning for several years about the possibility of a very major crisis, but they were ignored.

So I think the discipline has really lost by not coming clean about the nature of the assumptions that guide the mainstream theories,

Marnie Chesterton: 18:44

Jayati also argues that this lack of diversity in approach is affected by a lack of diversity in the people who are actually doing economics.

Jayati Ghosh: 18:54

There's a domination of what I call the North Atlantic, which is to say that economists based in the United States, the United Kingdom, and to some extent, Northern Europe, writing in English, get far greater recognition and acceptance than economists everywhere else in the world.

If you look just at the Nobel Prize for economics, I mean, who does it get awarded to over all of these decades? There's been a lot of discussion of how you know, women often get excluded or marginalised. And suddenly, there are very few women who make it to the top of the profession, very few role models in that sense. There are, there's a huge lack of diversity even in the North Atlantic, in terms of people of different ethnic backgrounds, race, religion, and so on.

Why does this matter? Because when you come from a particularly different reality, you are more aware of the assumptions that need to be changed of the ways in which economic mechanisms play out differently for different groups. And that changes the way you do your science. That changes the way you do your analysis.

Marnie Chesterton: 20:10

Luckily, though, things are changing. And there are those who want to make economics more permeable to different groups and voices.

Jayati Ghosh 20:18

And that's because young people have come out in far greater numbers, and across the world, to demand change. Groups like the Young Scholars Initiative, which has also grown massively in the last few years, who are also questioning. And they're open. They're saying, look, “”We are not going to exclude anybody. We want to hear all the different positions. And we want to expose ourselves to as many ideas, traditions and analyses as possible, so that we can judge for ourselves which is the most applicable which is the most relevant, which truly advances our own knowledge.”

Marnie Chesterton: 20:51

This idea is at the heart of the ISC’s LIRA 2030 programme, (Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa), which supports early career scientists in Africa, working to meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. What's distinctive about the LIRA programme is that it promotes transdisciplinary research, integrating knowledge and perspectives from different scientific disciplines and from non academics.

Dan Incoom 21:15

The idea of transdisciplinary research involving other people, other disciplines, and local people, always has something to teach us, especially those of us who are academics.

Marni Chesterston: 21:29

This is Dan Incoom, professor of planning at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, where he's been involved in LIRA 2030.

Dan Incoom 21:39

Young grantees come into the process, and they are faced with the problem of having to cross disciplines, to go into other fields, to be able to engender this kind of cross disciplinary research.

I think the general sense is that it was quite exciting. And you found a large number of the grantees very enthusiastic and very open to stepping into new grounds and discovering things for themselves. And then you get those who are a bit sceptical about whether this will work at all.

Marnie Chesterton: 22:15

Dan’s own field of research in urban policies is a focus of the LIRA programme. And it's one that benefits hugely from the transdisciplinary approach.

Dan Incoom: 22:24

Essentially, I'm looking at how urban policies can influence the kind of things we see in the in the urban landscape. And who are the actors who are involved in the processes?

I think the interesting thing is the perceptions of people who are educated, people who are public servants, people who are privileged, sometimes people have the notion, and sometimes us academics as well, we have the notion that it's a prerogative or it's our preserve. And that's in quotes. “ordinary people do not know much about policymaking. And as a result, it is that enlightened, the educated, the elite, who will do the policy and later consult the people for their opinions”.

And that is sometimes shocking, because it tells you a lot about how people conceptualise the whole development process.

And the fact that there's a lot of exclusion from that whole process.

And I personally think from my experience that that is the reason why we see a lot of the issues that are unresolved in the urban landscape. The whole idea of transdisciplinary research is to accept that one discipline, one, let me say kind of knowledge alone, cannot respond to the complexity of urban issues that we face, and that there needs to be collaboration, there needs to be interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary approach to resolving issues. And so once you have that at the back of your mind, then the so-called ordinary people also have something to contribute.

Marnie Chesterton: 24:19

This more inclusive way of doing research, which values and utilises the contributions of so called ordinary people is especially important when the outcomes of that research are going to impact those people.

Simone Athayade 24:31

I think it's it's fundamental to have diverse perspectives and indigenous peoples have the long term experience and biocultural connections, intersections between biological and cultural diversity.

And I think that academia has a very important role to play in bringing these voices to policymaking, in supporting indigenous struggles.

Marnie Chesterton: 24:58

This is Simone Athayade, associate professor in global and sociocultural studies at Florida International University. Simone is part of the ISC’s community of world social science fellows.

In 2012, her team was approached by indigenous communities who were concerned about several new dams that were under construction in the Amazon.

Simone Athayade 25:20

So a couple of different indigenous leaders came to talk to me and to my colleagues, to ask for support for their struggles and also to to challenge some of these studies that did not take that knowledge into consideration.

Marnie Chesterton: 25.30

This led Simone and her colleagues to set up the Amazon dams network to promote transdisciplinary dialogue and coordinate research across Amazonian rivers, knowledge systems and people.

Simone Athayade 25.40

We realised that people were not talking to each other researchers were not connecting their their topics were not connecting their research, the research that existed were not properly communicated to, you know, to society and to different actors, and also that indigenous peoples were, and local communities were largely invisible in this process of hydropower development,

Marnie Chesterton 25.50

It was through working with indigenous communities to monitor the potential impacts of the dams that researchers were able to discover new things.

Simone Athayade: 26.00

So we were developing the questions for the monitoring with them. And then something that the researchers did not think about was to also monitor the fruits that are used by the fish that are very important for, you know, the fish to be sustained. And, and so they, the indigenous community said, “Hey, look, this fruit is super important, but we need to understand what the flow of the river, the changes in the flow of the river. will cause to these fruits.”

So all of that was like a lesson to us. And there was included in the monitoring questions and in the monitoring programme.

Marnie Chesterton 27:05

The Amazon Dams network also highlighted the importance of including women in research projects like this, the indigenous

Simone Athayade: 27:12

Women's leadership was incredible for us to, to witness that. Because you know, women hold very different knowledge. In comparison to man when it comes to the environment, it's critical to have women's participation and to hear women's voices on these topics.

Marnie Chesterton 27:34

Bringing such a range of people and viewpoints together isn't always easy. And there may be some who are against the inclusion of different types of knowledge in research or who are uncomfortable with it. But Simone has some advice on how to promote fruitful collaboration,

Simone Athayade: 27:49

You need to be really welcoming and then use, you know, the theory of collaborative knowledge production, the theory of transdisciplinarity, to involve them.

And there are several tools and methods and things that you can use.

And one of them is to use bridging concepts. For example, to ask questions about the values of rivers, for different people.

Different people will have different notions, different opinions, different worldviews on rivers and the importance of rivers and and when you ask those questions openly, other things can happen and even biophysical scientists can express something even more spiritual that is connected to that worldview.

And that can make them more open to to hear and to listen to different perspectives.

And then also setting the ground rules early in the process, which is to be more tolerant and inclusive of different perspectives, help.

Because when there is any intolerance, you can bring back or remind people of what is our mission here, which is really learn from each other and to be more open, and tolerant.

Marnie Chesterton: 29:09

Simone Dan, and Jayati’s work show that knowledge is a shared journey, requiring input from diverse groups. We each come to science with our own perspectives and experiences. And only by harnessing those, can we discover new things about the world, adapt to its challenges and help science advance.

That's it for this episode on diversity in science from the International Science Council. You can find out more about the LIRA 2030 programme, and the other projects mentioned in this episode online at council dot science.

Next week, we'll be looking at improving gender diversity in science including initiatives to give women a stronger voice in science organisations.

And hearing from former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson,. on why climate change is a man made problem need of a feminist solution.

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