11/11/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hey, Science, Let's See the Forest and the Trees

Many people may be unfamiliar with the topic of academic specialization, as it typically is only relevant to those pursuing graduate-level studies. Specialization in one field is standard these days, which means that the majority of scientists are experts in very specific, often narrow fields. This has significant implications for the future of science, but let me explain a bit more.

During my time as a scientist I have met people whose focus is so narrow that it's very difficult to talk to them about anything outside their area of expertise. I know a biologist who is the world's leading authority on a particular type of microbe that lives in one particular spot in one particular area of the ocean. We were on a research cruise together in the Pacific Ocean, looking at the ocean floor using a high-tech submersible, ready to take samples of his microbes. When I asked him what type of rocks the microbes lived on, the answer was vague: "Oh, it's all basalt." When I asked what types of fish were swimming around the microbes' home, his answer was indifferent: "Oh, I don't do macrofauna." Hmm. Neither do I, but I was still curious about that fish. It was brown with white spots, and shaped like a guitar! How could you not want to know what it was? I later found that the fish in question was likely some type of Guitarfish (great name).

His indifference still concerns me, and it should concern you. He's a scientist, and one of the people who should be more curious than the average bear about the world around him. However, when we pursue the path of higher learning, we expect to specialize. In order to learn a topic thoroughly, we devote years to its intense study. However, science hasn't always been done this way. Many of history's greatest scientists and researchers were the exact opposite of specialists. Perhaps you've heard the term "Renaissance man" (or "Renaissance woman") before. Another term for someone who has significant expertise in a number of areas is "polymath." Unfortunately, all too often today we see polymaths discouraged in their attempts to transcend the boundaries of their fields.

I discovered geology too far into my undergraduate history program to switch majors, so I finished my history degree while loading as many science classes as I could into my last semesters of college. I was fortunate enough to find a special graduate program in geology at California State University at Los Angeles that would allow me to make up the undergrad courses I was missing while still taking graduate-level classes. Most people with polymath tendencies aren't afforded that opportunity. It's time that that changed. We can start smaller than a humanities-sciences crossover. What I'm proposing is subtler, and much easier to implement.

Scientists need to talk with members of other disciplines. We need to instill a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration and dialogue very early on in our students' careers. Just think if my microbiologist friend had a detailed understanding of his microbes' surroundings. If he regularly asked geologists and macrobiologists for input, his understanding of his subject's world would increase, and he would in turn be able to contribute to the work of other scientists. Interdisciplinary approaches to academics are finally gaining ground, with increasing numbers of students opting for interdisciplinary majors. Still, students are not often encouraged to take this approach.

As early as elementary school, subjects are decoupled. Earth science and history are taught completely separately, as though the two were unrelated. The "Little Ice Age" was a period of cooling from about 1350 to 1850 that is typically studied by Earth scientists. Meanwhile, in history classrooms, students learn about the "March Across the Belts," the freezing of New York Harbor in 1780, and the Native American leagues that formed as a result of food shortages. Correlating events like these at the K-12 level lays the essential groundwork for continued interdisciplinary work as students enter college or university.

Grants and other funding sources should encourage interdisciplinary work. Not everyone is a polymath, nor should they be. The current structure of academia isn't set up to encourage this type of work either, so there are some serious hurdles to overcome. We have greater access now than ever before in history to the collective wisdom of humanity. Scientists should be able to easily look to colleagues in other fields when addressing challenges in their own research. Students should be nudged toward projects that will expose them to other fields, and hopefully other methods of study. Universities should reward students who investigate the forest as well as the trees, as their big-picture conclusions will have a ripple effect that will amplify understanding of our world.