Identifying the 21st Century Pioneering Scientist

NOMIS Research Project

Science shapes culture in a way few institutions do. Much of modern life is a product of the scientific process and its offshoot, technology. In a very real sense, pioneering scientists are the creators of the modern world (Simonton 2004). But who are these people? What are the characteristics of the scientists whose ideas change science and, ultimately, our lives? And how do we identify and develop these characteristics?

In the 20th century, social scientists attempted to answer these questions. The picture of the scientific pioneer that emerged in the 20th century was of a western, confident, iconoclastic male, who grew up having experiences that taught him the world was dynamic and unpredictable, who was engrossed in his own ideas and who worked in a supportive environment that allowed him the time and space to create. But much has changed since this first generation of research emerged, and these changes motivate revisiting the questions of how to identify and develop the characteristics of creative scientists. Science is now a global enterprise that includes men, women and contributors from the entire globe. The conditions surrounding high-achieving science are quite different today. Much of today’s science happens in large teams, is transdisciplinary and is heavily dependent on external funding. Hence, leading a scientific project today requires different skills and capabilities than it did 100, 50 or even 20 years ago (Simonton 2013).

The project Identifying the 21st Century Pioneering Scientist seeks to bring to bear modern insights from psychology, economics, sociology, computer science and the science of science to revisit timeless questions concerning how to identify and develop creative scientists. We envision a program of research using cutting-edge technologies to identify who is likely to become a highly creative scientist, how the characteristics of highly creative scientists can be fostered among emerging scientists, and, ultimately, what qualities and conditions lead to pioneering scientific breakthroughs.

The project is being led by Brent W. Roberts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (US).