During a meeting today with a diverse group of 8 other Science professors, we found that our disagreement about a particular issue stemmed from one particular source that transcended our differences in scientific field (various physical and bio sciences), age, gender, race, or sanity level. We divided neatly into two subgroups, one of which was comprised of scientists whose research is highly focused on a particular topic, and the other by those who tend to work on a wide range of research topics at the same time.
I think that both modes of research can be quite interesting, successful, and inter-disciplinary, so the issue isn't whether one is a 'better' way to do science than the other. I think that scientists gravitate towards one mode of research or the other depending on what works best for their personality and/or environmental factors (availability of facilities, funds, students). I identify more with the second group because I like working on a wide range of projects - this is the mode of research that I find most enjoyable and exciting.
In the meeting today, some members of the Focused Group put forward the opinion that those who work on a wide range of topics tend to be 'too ambitious', 'too scattered', and 'superficial'. Some members of the Unfocused Group put forward the opinion that those who work on a specific, very focused topic are 'too narrow', 'can't see the Big Picture', and won't know what to do when that topic has been studied to extinction.
I should say that this was a very friendly discussion, and our disagreements were not expressed in a hostile way at all. Nevertheless, we found ourselves at an impasse, and have not yet found a way to reconcile these two different views to the extent of reaching a decision (nor did we have to in today's meeting, so we didn't try too hard).
Surely the answer is that the scientific community needs both kinds of scientists, ideally working together now and then. In our committee, however, we have to choose one species over the other, and that is difficult.
There have been times earlier in my career when I worried that I was too defocused -- that is, working on too many different things rather than concentrating on doing one thing very well. I knew it was what I enjoyed the most, but what were the implications for my career? If you work on lots of different things, is that good because your work is known by more people, or is it bad because you don't have a major body of work in any one topic (so perhaps are not an 'expert' in any one thing)? I never figured that out, but being 'scattered' among different projects doesn't seem to have harmed me at all, and it has been a lot of fun.
I don't know what my committee will ultimately decide, but I think that individual scientists are probably most productive and happiest if they have the freedom to work in whichever of these modes feels best for them. We should value both modes of research and shouldn't designate one as better than the other (and denigrate those who operate in the other mode). I don't know if my committee can get past this issue, but if we do, I am confident that we will find something else to argue about.
13 years ago