Multidisciplinary approach has to lead the research

Surgeons are so absurdly ultraspecialized that when we joke about right ear surgeons and left ear surgeons, we have to check to be sure they don’t exist.
With this witty quote, Atul Gawande, a professor at the Harvard Medical School, points out the absurdity of over-specialization: being specialized in a limited field that does not require an individual niche.

Recently, Alain Minc has shown concern over the absence of global thinkers in Economics. One could easily make the same observation in many other fields: finance (in the 2008 crisis, some people saw a problem of ultra-specialization, where only a few experts were really able to apprehend the risk of complex products such as subprimes), law as well as arts or sports (especially in the training of young sportsmen and sportswomen)…

This ultra-specialization no longer concerns only practitioners, it extends to research. Increasingly, researchers in all fields are becoming micro-specialists.

Yet the benefits of transdisciplinarity in both “fundamental” and “applied” research are many and varied. In his remarkable essay “Range,” David Epstein compiles several hundred pages of anecdotes, studies and facts that argue for a return to a more generalist intellectual, artistic and athletic education. Among his many demonstrations and references, one fact probably best synthesizes his point: Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to have hobbies or fields of study other than their primary discipline compared to other researchers.

In another 15-year study of all patents filed by 32,000 teams of researchers from more than 800 different organizations, two Spanish researchers also demonstrated that the more uncertain a field of research is (few patents are actually exploited), the more likely it is that diverse teams (including at least one researcher with expertise outside the field of research in question) will file a patent that will be exploited. Conversely, in relatively well explored areas of research (many patents filed, many patents exploited), teams of specialists file more patents of more immediate utility than diversified teams.

Thus, the more complex and uncertain a universe is, the more fruitful the cross-sector approach would be. This totally contradicts the intuition of the time that complexity justifies ultra-specialization.

Everything tends to show, however, that the more complex a system is, the less important being a singularly focused specialist is to understand it. Specialization would make sense in a known, rigid and repetitive system, not in an unknown, moving and random environment.

For this reason, we believe it would be a good idea for French research to re-evaluate the outsider advantage, lateral thinking and late specialization. It would recover a not-so-distant tradition — the culture of the honest man who values general knowledge rather than specialism, looking at the bigger picture rather than focusing.

At a time when AI is on the rise, this return to the distinctiveness of human intelligence would seem particularly relevant to us.

This is the wish of The Rules for Growth Institute, which combines law and economics in order to better understand and develop the rule of law through six transdisciplinary and cooperating research poles.

Régis Bourgueil
Member of Droit & Croissance