Sunday, February 19, 2017

Consequences of Overspecialization in Science

Isaac Newton is famous for new ideas that transformed nearly every branch of science after his time. Known best for physics, his development of mathematical concepts set the stage for most of the advancement of the modern world. Other scientists before and after his time provided foundations of their own fields. Back in that time, little was known about complicated natural systems, including the structure of matter, electromagnetism, light, astronomy, biology, weather and climate, and nearly every other field of modern science.

With so little known, it was possible for a few brilliant minds to contribute deeply to our understanding of what ultimately became many different fields. Knowledge has now been accumulating in these fields for decades to centuries.

Today, a student might specialize in biology as an undergraduate, focus on marine biology for a Master's degree, then specialize for a PhD in understanding a type of skin growth on a rare species of sea slug. The newly minted PhD might be the world leader in analysis of that type of skin growth, but the same scientist might know relatively little about other branches of biological sciences. With so many different subfields that have developed out of many different past research projects, the days are long past when anyone can learn the whole of biological or even marine biological sciences.

Many remaining scientific debates relate to concepts that align in between fields. Although scientists working in individual fields may think that their fields are well understood, understanding of concepts at the boundaries between the fields may be less so.

As a professor, my first research proposal I submitted for funding to the National Science Foundation was aimed to better understand how weather signals interact with El NiƱo in the Pacific Ocean. Observations suggested that the condition of the ocean at a given time influences weather events, including windy periods, and that the winds then cause changes in the condition of the ocean.

Since my field was closest to atmospheric science, I submitted my proposal to the branch of the NSF that oversees atmospheric dynamics. However, the oceans component of the work necessitated that the proposal also get reviewed by a panel of oceanographers. The atmospheric science reviewers ranked the proposal well, but the oceanographers prevented it from being funded, because they thought my proposed analysis of observational data was not exciting.

Sometimes the subculture of scientists in one field resists changes initiated by scientists who started out in neighboring fields, and it can be difficult for scientists trained in one subfield to gain access to the community in a neighboring field.

Alfred Wegener was a prime example: He was a meteorologist who presented the concept of continental drift to a community of geologists who were clearly not ready for the idea and who on the whole did not accept it until decades later.

Bottom line: In order to make more efficient progress, scientists need to work to speak the languages of neighboring fields when they attempt to solve problems in those fields. They also need to not be quick to reject new ideas suggested by scientists from neighboring fields just because the authors do not know all of the jargon and the history in their own fields.