Saturday, August 4, 2012

Looking above the heads of the crowd

I was having a research-y conversation with a colleague when he said something very profound. "The problem with me" (he said) "is that I'm interested in too many things". My first thought was 'yeah, me too'. If you ask my mentor 'what is the problem with Carol Haigh?' somewhere in the 15 volumes of documentation he would hand you in return would be the phrase "She has no focus". But my second thought was "why is that a bad thing? 

Without doubt we need people who are happy to spend their entire career concerned about the healing rate of diabetic ulcers in women whose birth sign is Libra or are exercised about the life cycle of the Tibetan water snail but we also need individuals who can't settle on one topic or idea, people who consistently poke their heads above the crowd to see what's coming next. These are the people who can adapt their research interest to changes in policy or technology. They are the people for whom cross-disciplinary collaboration holds no fear because they aren't afraid to knock on the door of other previously unrelated disciplines and say, ' I can help with this'.

My fear for the next generation of researchers is that they won't be encouraged to celebrate their generalist tendencies and will be expected to slot themselves into the narrow confines of a specialist subject. Research has changed dramatically over the past decade - the age of the solitary researcher is coming to an end and multi-site, multi-institutional  collaboration is now the norm, interdisciplinary collaboration is already being seen as advantageous when bidding for large research grants and cross disciplinary research, such as  between health, technology and industry for example, is the next logical step.

For this to work we need to encourage the generalists, we need people who are willing to change focus and direction and use a macro gaze in order to move the whole of their discipline forward into the second decade of the 21st century as much as we need the  micro gaze of the specialists 

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