Widening the Aperture: Achieving Diversity in the Search for Excellence

Chief of Naval Research/Director, Innovation Technology Requirements and Test & Evaluation (N84) chats with young men

By John Barth, Karl Berry, Will Brown, Dr. Sarwat Chappell, Cmdr. Michael Files, USN, Dr. Roderick French, Curtis Howard, Mickale Jones, Michael Meyers, Catherine Mule, Dave Nystrom, Dr. John Pazik, Debbi Rafi, and Joe Wojtecki

For 70 years, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has diligently pursued a single vision: Sailors and Marines carrying a decisive technological advantage into every battle wherever they are engaged. While this mission is laser sharp, this always will be an evolving challenge. A wide open aperture to a workforce of excellence without boundaries is an essential prerequisite. Our goal as the ONR Diversity Council is to ensure that that aperture remains open, and to find ways to make it even wider.

A Growing Sense of Urgency

Sustaining our historically decisive edge depends on a future capacity for technology innovation. Senior leaders across the Department of Defense are sounding alarms about the need to accelerate advances in technology. The Secretary of Defense has called for a “Third Offset Strategy” to regain and accelerate America’s military technology lead. Task Force Innovation, created by the Secretary of the Navy, aims to leverage good ideas from all levels of the Navy and Marine Corps. The Chief of Naval Operations is championing “high-velocity learning” as a means to accelerate organizational improvement while becoming inherently receptive to innovation and creativity. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has stressed the importance of leveraging their superb talent to enhance quality and diversity to remain the nation’s preeminent force.

Cutting-edge capabilities emerge from excellence in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. To ensure continued excellence in the future, ONR acknowledges the necessity of opening our aperture ever wider to attract talented people, wherever and whoever they may be. Diversity of thought, and the commensurate ability to attack complex problems from multiple perspectives, is rooted in a diverse culture and a broad base of educational and workplace experience. Only a welcoming, dynamic, and inclusive organization will sustain our high standards. In other words, we must ensure that people of excellence everywhere know that “diversity is welcome here.”

A Perspective on Diversity

Diversity can be an awkward subject. The conventional definition focuses on categorical differences among people, which often drives a quota-based approach to staffing. This is “identity diversity,” and while it serves the useful purpose of presenting an outward portrait of an organization in which more people might “see” themselves fitting inclusively, it also has become the basis for negative stereotypes, biasing us to think about diversity superficially. Some of these misperceptions emerged in a recent employee survey. While most respondents saw ONR as a diverse organization, concerns remain that diversity focuses on numbers rather than talent.

As a science and technology (S&T) organization focused on the primacy of excellence, we transcend stereotypical, traditional paradigms and understand the importance of cognitive diversity (diversity of thought) and its role in technology innovation. In our quest for cognitive diversity we have a responsibility to open our aperture and remove barriers in our search for talent. This is not to suggest that everyone can be a great scientist or engineer, but that we must recognize great science and engineering can come from anywhere.

“Across the Naval Research Enterprise [NRE*], our desired end state is to be a high-performing S&T organization,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Mat Winter. “Diversity is an essential enabler to getting there and staying there. Only with a culture of open, inclusive, and collaborative engagement can we achieve true critical thinking. Critical thinking leads to the solution space from which emerges the innovative ideas that enable our decisive competitive edge.” This, simply stated, is the case for diversity.

Cognitive diversity is our ultimate goal. We believe the best outcomes emerge when differing ideas and perspectives contribute to the solution. More importantly, cognitive diversity brings with it a new culture of inclusion and fosters greater opportunity for employees to work collaboratively toward successful solutions.

Cognitive diversity contributes to knowledge in four ways: access to a broader range of knowledge leads to a greater accumulation of information; interaction among diverse individuals leads to deeper and shared understanding; analysis is enhanced when diverse individuals discuss and deliberate viewpoints; integration of the best knowledge through debate and discussion creates the best solutions.

The pursuit of cognitive diversity requires access to STEM performers who, for a variety of reasons, may have been overlooked, or prevented from participating in naval S&T research by barriers of which we’re not necessarily even aware. Discussing biases openly and acknowledging that excellence includes diversity can help us fully answer leaders’ call for enhancing our technology advantage.

Achieving S&T excellence through cognitive diversity presents three challenges. One is finding STEM excellence, sometimes in new and unexpected places. Another is attracting STEM excellence—can diverse people “see” themselves as an integral part of our organization? A third challenge is elevating the appreciation of cognitive diversity above the barriers of stereotypes and breaking up antiquated hiring stovepipes.

To meet all three challenges, we must acknowledge the misperceptions and stereotypes we are all familiar with and not allow them to impose barriers. The NRE aspires to reflect the promise of America—that excellence defies boundaries. Talented people from around the world or with different life experiences can flourish here in a melting pot of diversity. We need to leverage this advantage, one that is not found in abundance among some competitor nations. In short, diversity is our collective national strength.

Currently, our journey to cognitive diversity is largely aspirational; we see the potential, but we have yet to surmount all the challenges. Our progress to date as a diversity council has deepened our understanding of the true nature of these challenges and illuminated our path forward. We would like to share some of these insights.


Chart 1: World-Wide Growth in Natural Science and Engineering PhDs: In the US, only 57% of doctorates were earned by citizens or permanent residents… temporary visa holders earned the remainder. Source: NSF S&E Indicators


• Our adversaries are closing the technology gap. It is imperative that we accelerate technological innovation.

• Diversity of thought and perspectives drive an innovative S&T workforce to greater excellence. Research shows that the top 50 most diverse companies consistently outperform major stock indexes.

• We must open the aperture even wider to world-class STEM talent, wherever they may be. The international science and engineering workforce is growing larger and more diverse much faster than in the United States (see chart 1).


• The NRE appears to be limiting its search for talent; this is not sustainable.

• International and national science and engineering workforce diversity is growing rapidly (15 percent increase), yet the NRE’s diversity identity remains stagnant (see chart 2).

• Women are earning a growing portion of the natural science and engineering doctorates (8 percent increase), yet the ratio of women employed in the NRE as scientists or engineers remains unchanged (see chart 3).

Chart 2

Chart 2

On the surface, showing pie charts implies we should be more quota-driven in recruiting and hiring our science and engineering workforce—but that would be the wrong conclusion. What these data suggest is the pool of talent the NRE is drawing from is changing and growing faster than we are, and our current course places our continued success at risk if we fail to change with it. This requires us to change the way we think about diversity.

Maintaining leadership in the S&T community raises a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Is an S&T organization excellent because it is diverse, or is it diverse because it is excellent? In other words, does being diverse automatically result in improved S&T support for warfighters, or does the course to excellence lead to diversity as a natural consequence? There are numerous studies that show differing perspectives and viewpoints can improve outcomes.

As we move forward we must distinguish further between cognitive and identity diversity. The worldwide pool of STEM talent continues to grow and become more diverse in both regards. Consequently, cognitive diversity will include identity diversity as a natural consequence. At the same time, we believe in the power of identity diversity— that is, diversity engenders more diversity. When people of STEM excellence with diverse identities look at the NRE, can they see themselves comfortably and inclusively working here? The answer must be yes.

Over the years, diversity efforts have been viewed merely as a socially valued stance to promote cultural/ethnic equality; e.g., occasional guest speakers and ethnic food samples. Beyond fulfilling legal requirements and Navy policy, and being the right thing to do, gaining cognitive diversity makes good business sense.


Chart 3

A Competition for Talent

Organizational excellence calls for dealing with diversity as a strategic business issue. Naval S&T is engaged in a competition for talent. As reflected in a 2015 Manpower, Inc., survey of 5,000 hiring managers, a talent shortage already exists in the American workplace. Thirty-two percent of companies reported difficulties recruiting in technology skills areas such as engineering. A recognized leader in benchmarking research, reporting on difficulties in recruiting talented workers, Bersin & Associates identified the energy, oil and gas, telecommunications, manufacturing, and the federal government as “at risk industries.” As we move deeper into areas such as cyber and information technology, we are competing with major industries and a global marketplace for the best talent.

This talent shortage comes at the same time growth in the US labor force is slowing down, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor force is anticipated to grow at an average annual growth rate of 0.5 percent over the 2014-24 period. The growth is projected to be smaller than in the previous 10-year period, when the labor force grew at a growth rate of 0.6 percent annually. It also comes as the existing workforce is rapidly aging. The Office of Management and Budget’s most recent statistics (2013) show the average federal civilian employee was 47.3 years old. The Department of the Navy’s civilian workforce average was 47. While wisdom is valued, a constant influx of fresh ideas and perspectives from younger minds is critical to the innovation process.

Based on data compiled by ONR’s Human Capital Strategy team in September 2015, aspects of the NRE’s own demographic profile need to be carefully evaluated:

• Average age of NRE employees: 47.2 years

• Almost 48 percent are more than 50

• 30 percent of NRE’s total workforce is female, but only 15 percent of the science and engineering workforce is female

• Only 9.8 percent of the workforce is under the age of 30

• 17 percent of the NRE is already retirement-eligible.

Looking out over the next few years, 34 percent of the NRE’s civilian staff will be retirement-eligible by 2020. These figures parallel the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014 research that projects the following replacement rates for in-demand skill sets:

• Scientists and engineers 27 percent and 24 percent respectively

• Acquisition professionals 28.5 percent

• Financial professionals 24 percent

• Information Technology and Mathematical professionals 14.7 percent.

In short, the NRE will face ever-increasing challenges to maintain a cutting-edge S&T workforce. Private industry knows that diversity makes good business sense. As an example, the Top 50 Companies for Diversity Index consistently outperforms two of the major indexes—the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the NASDAQ 100. Naval S&T has a business case for diversity: the bottom line is measured by innovative solutions creating warfighter capabilities, solutions best produced by a cognitively diverse workforce.

Where We Are

Increasing competition for high-tech skills, coupled with internal and external demographic changes, make it difficult to recruit and hire qualified candidates through legacy processes.

With a significant portion of the NRE’s workforce approaching retirement, ONR must reach out to people of excellence in populations previously marginalized or overlooked. As reflected in ONR’s 2015 Human Capital Strategy report, taken as a whole the NRE’s workforce mix is fairly diverse, but within core S&T departments it remains heavily populated by white males.

ONR’s human capital plan needs to recognize changing national and international demographics and work habits, including:

• Women account for 47 percent of the US workforce

• Based in part on immigration trends, Asian and Latino populations constitute the fastest growing segments of the labor force

• Recent immigrants in the prime recruiting age bracket of 25-34 are more than twice as likely as their US-born counterparts to hold master’s or higher-level degrees

• The concept of lifetime employment is largely dead, with the average American worker changing jobs nine times between the ages of 18 and 34.

Homogeneous groups can exhibit cognitive diversity, but increasing the variance of diversity factors greatly improves the chances for gaining diversity of thought. Given the NRE’s aging workforce, if we fail to begin broadening the scope of traditional recruiting paths, we risk failing to support cutting-edge advances.

Evolving to More Cognitively Diverse Excellence

Going forward, we must address key misperceptions that limit our thinking about diversity, educate leaders to create a common understanding, and generate alignment on actions to mitigate existing barriers (self-imposed or otherwise). We are pursuing the action agenda below, organized around a simple framework of people, organization, and mission.

People: View diversity (cognitive and identity) not as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to be embraced. It is a consequence of expanding the search for STEM excellence to the broadest extent possible.

• Training: develop and implement training, particularly for leadership, to dispel superficial myths, increase awareness of personal and institutional bias, and establish a common understanding

• Process: review current recruiting and human resource processes to identify constraints that may be limiting the aperture for new talent (i.e., hiring criteria such as education levels, native language, or work experience that may no longer apply to today’s rapidly evolving STEM-proficient applicants)

• Governance: emphasize diversifying criteria in the command hiring board to prioritize positions that would benefit from a wider range of applicants.

Organization: Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand— diversity factors are something staff members can track and manage, while inclusion is a function of good leadership. Organizations with an inclusive culture will naturally track toward increased diversity.

• Leadership: hold one-on-one meetings with leaders to review their department’s diversity. Identify where diversity is working well, understand why, and share the lessons learned with all leaders

• Communication: sustain the dialogue by soliciting ideas and providing feedback (information exchanges, articles, lecture series, etc.)

• Teams: ensure the diversity council is a command priority, establish working groups across departments to foster activity, and leverage existing diversity when creating integrated product teams.

Mission: Diversity of thought is critical to the innovation process. The kind of innovation that wins wars is technology-based. To maintain our world-class status, we must search worldwide for the best and brightest to join the NRE.

• Research: leverage investments being made in historically black colleges and universities and minority institutions and naval STEM efforts to increase awareness of opportunities to work in the NRE

• ONR Global: leverage knowledge of regional technology hotspots and contacts worldwide to uncover new recruiting sources and different staffing strategies (i.e., international exchanges)

• Barriers: seek new tools for new times; recruit, hire, and fast track qualified visa holders to US citizenship and security clearance, as feasible.


In the final analysis, widening the aperture begins with recruiting. Our past efforts have made us successful to date, but we must ask ourselves: are we positioned to find STEM excellence wherever it may be going forward? Do we seek talent without boundaries? Is the American dream fully unleashed in the NRE? Are we positioned to attract excellence when we find it, and can talented people see themselves here as an attractive destination?

Recruiting is only the beginning of the quest for excellence. Diversity changes the landscape, while inclusion changes the culture. Once we have found and acquired excellence through the most talented, diversely smart people, are we positioned to inspire, grow and retain them?

Our point is that diversity must be part of an ongoing conversation. When we can answer “yes” to these questions and then take a close look at ourselves, what will we see? We expect to see an inclusive culture reflecting diversity— both cognitive and identity—in a sharp and enduring focus.

*The NRE consists of the Office of Naval Research, the Naval Research Laboratory, ONR Global, and PMR-51.

About the authors:

The authors are members of the ONR Diversity Council, all of whom contributed to this article.

About Future Force Staff