Does Hyper-specialization in Science Stifle Innovation?

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Synopsis

Cross-fertilisation of ideas within science is hugely important for innovation. The problem is, the more specialised we become, the more disconnected we become with other scientists outside our field.

"Nowadays, people are all in their separate silos and are so specialized that it’s hard to understand what anybody else is doing." -Sir Tim Hunt, Winner of Nobel Prize for Medicine 2001

Osamu Shimomura is a marine biochemist who discovered Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) from jellyfish in the 1960s. Martin Chalfie is a neurobiologist, in a completely different field of science.  Fortunately he heard about Shimomura’s discovery when attending a lunch-time seminar in his lab in the late 1980s.  The rest is innovation history.

Cross-fertilisation of ideas within science is hugely important for innovation.  The problem is, the more specialised we become, the more disconnected we become with other scientists outside our field. Jargon-filled publications are not helping.  That’s why we think 2 minute video snapshots from researchers will hopefully transform our work to allow a much wider audience to connect, collaborate and innovate upon. Spreading researchers knowledge to a wider, more general audience cultivates much greater potential for innovation outcomes:

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Last year as I was catching-up with one of my scientific idols (Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize for Medicine-1996)  over a coffee in Melbourne and he said something which shocked me.  I’m now convinced the current system of transferring knowledge in science via publications impedes the types of connections that we want, like between Chlafie and Shimomura.

Peter is an immunologist and I’m an ocean biogeochemist – very different fields. We started talking about Peter’s latest work and the fascinating demographics of killer flu viruses.  But like always, he wanted to learn about my field of science and what I’ve been up to.  I previously gave him some of my scientific papers to read, even the ‘high-impact’ papers that were supposedly written for a wider audience like Science and PNAS.  What did  he think of them I wondered?

“I’ve tried to read and follow climate science in general, but I can’t.” Peter told me  “The field is written in a completely different, alien language to us in immunology” he continued.  “Now talk to me in plain language about the research please” he asked.

In a 21st century digital age where anyone can easily and instantly connect with content and people around the world, it might sound odd to suggest that collaboration is getting worse, not better.  But if one of the world’s most brilliant scientists cannot take away a basic understanding of my simple science, then innovation has a big problem.

The language and transfer of knowledge needs an entirely new medium.  Something in-between the complexity, jargon and details so others can follow. Abstracts (those few hundred words at the start of a scientific publication), used to help scientists understand what the take-home message is for a piece of work.  But nowadays, they are simply mini versions of complex, jargon-filled language that anyone beyond their own specialisation would have no idea how to understand.

Don’t get me wrong here, long pdfs of jargon-filled text is very important for specialists to understand and review the details of a new piece of science. But as digital efficiency grows and the volumes of journals and publications continually flow into your inbox and personalised feeds, our ability to even understand and learn about science that is quite close to our own field gets worse. The more hyper-specialist we become, the more dis-connected we become from other scientists and the wider community, only to become more connected to fewer and fewer people who can understand our alien language.

Specialising is important, but only if it allows the time and understanding of other ideas from other areas of life and science.  Serendipitous connections and the evolution of ground-breaking innovation can only come about if someone understands what has been done, why it’s innovative or why it failed. If the efficiency of the internet only feeds what you know, how on earth are any of us exposed to what we dont know?

To boost innovation, the medium of transferring scientific knowledge needs to facilitate the cross-fertilisation of ideas.  That’s why we think 2minute video snapshots direct from researchers own work is so important.  These snapshots like this one from cell biologist Martin Rees or this one from oceanographer Tristan Sasse, distill down the complexity and jargon of a journal article into something more people can understand.

To grow a much wider network of people interested in collaboration and supporting your research, your thinkable profile page is your place to engage in short video snapshots of your research.  Once people subscribe to your research, you can keep them updated in all formats, whether text, picture or video.  However to start the connection between your research and a much wider audience, video snapshots are really important, not to mention innovation.

 

This article originally appeared at THINKABLE

 

Dr. Ben McNeil is an award-winning scientist and founder of Thinkable.org, a platform that connects researchers with on-going sponsors to fund breakthrough thinking. Ben has been an oceanographer for nearly twenty years. After working as a post-doctoral research fellow at Princeton University, he now lives in Sydney, Australia with his family and is based at the University of New South Wales. The idea for Thinkable came out of Ben's passion for creative, blue-sky thinking, but frustration that this type of science struggles to find traditional support in todays world.

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Find out more at thinkable.org

Tags: ben mcneil, collaboration, innovation in science, sciences, specialization, thinkable

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