A general(ist) sense of discomfort

A recent blogpost in the research policy section on the website of HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) – a place which might well have a creditable claim to the highly-contested title of ‘Nerdiest Corner of the Internet’ – highlights the body’s continuing focus on interdisciplinary research in the next Research Excellence Framework (known colloquially as ‘The REF’); the system by which the quality of research in UK universities is assessed. While pretty much everyone is in agreement that interdisciplinary work is a Good Thing, I often wonder if we are appreciative enough of the potential stresses associated with trying to work across disciplinesLaurie-hannigan-200x280.


The theoretical template for interdisciplinary work is clear and appealing. You lock your biologists in a room with your engineers: you get mosquito-inspired needles and a system of air-conditioning designed by termites. Send your computer scientists out for lunch with your doctors; they’ll come back with a machine-learning algorithm for making cancer diagnoses. Get your psychologists going bowling with your statisticians, and the result might even be replicable psychology…

The truth, though, is that specialists from different disciplines are not always that good at communicating with each other. Sometimes, no matter how clear the need for an interdisciplinary approach to a problem is, collaborators have difficulty finding a common language in which to work. This is where the generalists come in.


To be a generalist is, in general, to sacrifice pure expertise in one discipline for a broader base of knowledge and skills that help bridge the divides between specialties. Of course, poly-maths with expert level performance in multiple areas do exist. But they are the exception rather than the rule; and overcoming the sense of needing to be as proficient as the specialists with whom they work is one of the challenges generalists face. To do so is not easy, and is made harder where incentive structures favour those who stick within their comfort zones.

“Facilitating the links between disciplines is an important contribution for any scientist to make”

In an academic climate where the so-called “impostor syndrome” is seemingly far more prevalent than so-called “grant-funding”, we must value our generalists. Bearing the cognitive dissonance of being an expert in the eyes of the lay public, and at the same time being the one in the room who needs a quick reminder about the details of some ostensibly basic concept before an interdisciplinary project meeting is not easy. But facilitating the links between disciplines is an important contribution for any scientist to make.

I like to think of the proud struggle of the generalist in terms of the well-known (and, seemingly, actually replicable) Dunning-Kruger effect: a process of systematically robbing oneself of the illusory comfort of naivety; learning enough about a given domain to appreciate its complexity before forging ahead to the next, in a never-ending cycle of intellectual self-flagellation. Whether this is true, or in fact just a story I tell myself to justify the perpetual fog of confusion that surrounds my working day is, frankly, none of your damn business.