“Everyone is getting better at less and less, and one day someone is going to be superb at nothing”. Kenneth Williams.
Following on from my posts about the ever expanding literature comes the issue of specialisation in academia. In the olden days when science was forming as a concept most people dabbled in many fields – it was normal for people to work on mathematics, chemistry, botany, astronomy and philosophy all but simultaneously. Even within fields like zoology it was normal for people like Darwin to devote time to South American fossil mammals, barnacles, worm behaviour and more aside from his theorising and work on natural selection. Even as little as 20 or 30 years ago it was common to find researchers who worked on ‘whales’ or ‘dinosaurs’ when now one might find one researcher specialising in sauropod mechanics and another in sauropod feeding and yet another on their systematics. I think it fair to say then that over time there has been a pretty strong trend towards increased specialisation by researchers and while of course everyone dabbles well outside their supposed ‘main research theme’, the theme in itself seems to shrink in each generation of research.
There’s no doubt that greater specialisation allows researchers to do better and more detailed science. It’s hard to know everything about dinosaurs so if you try, your work on sauropod feeding mechanics might be a bit superficial – if you specialise in sauropod feeding mechanics then you likely have read every paper on the subject and in detail and will be able to bring that knowledge and expertise to bear on the problem. This is, of course, a good thing in general. More work of a more detailed nature will be done and it stops people from getting lost in the vast realms of literature and specimens of a much larger field (100 years ago one could probably easily see every dinosaur *specimen*, now it’s probably rare for someone to have seen a single representative of every family) and of tackling tricky areas that might require specialist knowledge.
However, I think there is a danger of missing the wood for the trees. Just as a spotlight lets us see into a dark and deep well of a scientific problem, a more general illumination of the area around us can be just as valuable, if not more so. It reminds me of the old tale of the blind monks and the elephant – details are all well and good, but you need someone to see the bigger picture.
To draw from my own experiences, I have found that some people have a very limited knowledge out things outside of their own narrow focus and that they can struggle when trying to integrate things from other branches of biology. Without the contributions of colleagues (themselves typically specialists) then it’s clear that people are in a position to produce less good science. In short, collaboration is (I think) becoming more and more important for more and more research as the specialisation of researchers continues.
You could call this a plea for generalists in science or a warning that over specialisation could harm future research. However, I’d prefer to see it as a discussion point (since although it’s fairly obvious what I think, it’s not something I’ve discussed much with my peers) – is there too much specialisation? Are ‘generalists’ (at whatever level) a dying breed? Is this a problem?
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