Cross-pollinators and the risks of specialization. The screw and the knife. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)

Cross-pollinators and the risks of specialization. The screw and the knife. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)

(new comments at the bottom. updated 12 Feb 2014)


Recently, a new term has caught my attention: “Cross-Pollinator“. Based on my experience in Aerobiological studies, I assumed its meaning to be related to vectors inducing cross pollination between plants. But I was wrong.

The term is applied by Tom Kelley in the book “The Ten Faces of Innovation”. Tom has observed a number of roles that people can play in an organization to foster innovation and new ideas while offering an effective counter to naysayers. Among these approaches are the Anthropologist, the person who goes into the field to see how customers use and respond to products, to come up with new innovations; the Cross-Pollinator, who mixes and matches ideas, widely disparate people, and technologies to create new ideas that can drive growth; and the Hurdler, who instantly looks for ways to overcome the limits and challenges to any situation.

“Cross-pollinators” are defined as those people that can create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts. They often innovate by discovering a clever solution in one context or industry then translating it successfully to another.

Those aptitudes described to play the role of a cross-pollinator inside organizations such as Kraft, Samsung, and Procter & Gamble, are also recognised, valued and even desired when building up teams aimed to confront environmental issues. The aptitudes expected in the person to play the role are drawn together as multidisciplinary thinking. However, this role not only involves the ability to see connections between disciplines but also to have broad and well-formed foundations.

Academic and non-academic formation (education, trainning) are being designed to achieve specialization in the shortest period of time despite of compromising the strength of their foundations. I see a contradiction between an increasing awareness for the need of multidisciplinary thinkers or cross pollinators and a fast-paced urge for specialization and the risks associated to it.

The risks of specialization.

These type of aptitudes are being increasingly valued and demanded since it is becoming more evident than ever that, like in many different sectors, in order to understand how our environment works, it is not good enough to define separate disciplines of study looking for building specialised fractions of knowledge. Since our environment is the result of multidisciplinary processes interacting, isolating bodies of knowledge allows specialisation but put at risk understanding the interactions playing in the whole. It is like creating specific disciplines of study for each individual tree of a forest, leaving in second place the forest as a whole. And that seems to be a direction reflected in the way how formation has become structured in all the sectors from academia, electronics, mechanics …

Using my own experience as an example, I remember that I wanted to study Biology because I wanted to understand the world in which we live. And oh my, it was hard but I was right. We had to undertake several annual modules in general Biology for 3 years going through every aspect being part of the environment and 2 more getting specialized choosing between Molecular, Animal and Environmental fields (if anybody is curious I leave the relation of modules at the bottom). As a result, any Biologist would be suitable to understand multidisciplinary issues (a molecular biologist would understand about climate change issues and an environmentalist would understand Genetic Manipulation matters) and see connections between fields. Not only would be able of formulating approaches in a broad spectrum but with the enhanced capacities of adopting new skills based on multidisciplinary foundations. Like a mechanic whose formation allows him to understand general mechanics but also to recognise and incorporate tools and skills from different disciplines independently of the field of performance.

Nowadays, it is very common to find that University degrees like Biology [BSc-UK] takes 3 years where it is advertised that in the course content for year 2 “you will continue your studies in greater depth and begin to specialise”… I suppose that this policy of promoting fast specialization at the expense of building strong multidisciplinary foundations is based on trying to increase competitiveness. However, it comes with the same risk that we face with Genetic Modified organisms in food production. That is reducing biodiversity and resilience in the “DNA code” of our academics.

The screw and the knife.

Losing biodiversity means that we may end up with a discipline uncovered due to a lack of specialists in the field if it loses its attractiveness for young students. Since we are starting to need a specific individual for each specific problem, who is going to have the knowledge to identify the problem in the first place in order to recognise who is the specialist to deal with it?

Reducing resilience means decreasing the capacity to cope with changes. Focusing on specialised skills and tools limits the versatility of the performance to confront a situation. Once it happened to me that being at home, a friend and I needed a screw driver to unscrew a screw but we did not have one. So I suggested to use a knife. He looked at me and asked, can you really unscrew a screw with a knife? … Don´t judge any of us, just take the situation to understand my point here.

In a different situation, I was asked about how to understand the controversy around GMO’s. I said that the DNA is like a toolbox. For the same amount of money, as many more tools you have in it, higher are the chances for you to confront any situation. Otherwise, you might spend the same amount of money in a very specific pair of tools and depend on spending more money getting help from others. The DNA is a code to make many tools. When you reduce the amount of functional DNA or restrict its functionality towards a specific performance, you lose the versatility of those plants to develop tools accordingly with their needs. The concentrated presence of a single cultivar, genetically adapted with a single resistance strategy, presents a situation in which an entire crop can be wiped out very quickly by a single opportunistic species. An example of this would be the potato famine of Ireland in 1845–1849.

Specialization vs Multidisciplinary knowledge. The battle.

Debates about Climate are one of those places where specialization becomes easily apparent. Everyone talks and defends its own tree, or field of expertise. Everybody is either defending or searching for the right answer and yet, I haven´t seen somebody analysing which is the right question. It feels like each one involved in the topic of “Human development impact in the Global ecosystem” is looking at his/her own tree and nobody moves out to look at the forest. Are being formulated the right questions in order to answer our worries? What are we looking at and trying to find treatment for, symptoms or cause? (link to previous post) Every protocol followed to study the impact of the development of any individual specie in a closed ecosystem (Australia, Galapagos, Yellowstone …) seems to be thrown out the window as soon as we talk about the human species. And we must remember that the earth is a closed environment.

I don´t know who is right or wrong but there is just one think that I am convinced about and that it is that sooner or later the development of the Human species is going to have an impact in the ecosystem of the same scale as the distribution of the specie in the ecosystem, global. Since the first time that it was recognised the impact of a single species in the equilibrium of an ecosystem it feels missing those studies proposing and hypothesising which would be the symptoms and causes based on the trends of development for the human species (link to previous posts). The data obtained in our present should have already some hypothetical approaches to play against. I would like to know what would need to happen in each discipline of research to identify the impact of human development in order to have some data to play against the actual observations. I believe it would make a good starting point to allow “cross-pollinators” to study connections out of the box. Same applies to Genetic Engineering in food production (link to previous posts). Every product getting introduced through official channels for our consumption need to pass numerous tests and evaluations previously. It seems that there is more concern and research about what the plant of cannabis can do to harm human health in the long and short term than feeding entire populations with genetic modified crops, exposing at the same time entire ecosystems to genetic contamination. The empirical and hypothetical approaches of evaluating risks should be before and not after exposure.

This battle might well be the result of cultural cognition and the role it plays in polarizing debates. A study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project (link to post) looked at “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks”. Their results suggest that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.

Surviving the battle

At this point, it might be also relevant to mention the pressure which the scientific community faces. The risks of being exposed to isolation from the rest of the community due to differences in opinion, or from funding resources due to conflict of interests, makes many scientific minds to avoid raising hypothetical approaches based on scientific criteria and to play safe and wait for undeniable proof before speaking their minds.

These are examples where specialization has the risk to divide efforts diminishing functionality despite of enhancing competitiveness.  Experts in each discipline discuss the validity of their approaches and the right interpretation of their data. So, in every speciality everybody is busy dealing with their own paradigms and those specialists moving out of their safe zone trying to find connections expose themselves of being discredited. This is not the place where to think out of your box.

Just a thought

In today’s world it seems to be an increasing awareness for the need of “cross-pollinators” and “multidisciplinary thinkers”. However, specialization has become a priority since the lack of it reduce your competitiveness. Therefore, I wonder if the strategy based on fast paced specialization would  put at risk losing quality foundations. Ultimately, not only decreasing versatility in the creative potential to develop innovative ways of thinking, but furthermore, to understand others and to find common ground to move forward.

If anybody is curious about the annual modules that used to be part of the university degree in Biology (1996 Spain – “Licenciado”):

First Cycle.

1st year: Vegetal Biology, Biostatistics, Physical Chemistry, Geology, Biochemistry I

2nd year: Histology and cytology, Zoology, Cryptogams, Biochemistry II

3rd year: Microbiology, Genetics, Plant physiology, Animal physiology, Phanerogams

Second Cycle. Speciality: Environmental

4th year: Ecology, Edafology, Phytopathology, Evolutionary Genetics, Physical Geography

5th year: Ecology II, Geobotany, Plant physiology II, Genetic improvement, Oceanography


About Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD.

Citing This Site "Title", published online "Month"+"Year", retrieved on "Month""Day", "Year" from By Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD. More guidance on citing this web as a source can be found at NASA webpage:! DOIs can be generated on demand by request at email: d.fdezsevilla(at) for those publications missing at the ResearchGate profile vinculated with this project. **Author´s profile: Born in 1974. Bachelor in General Biology, Masters degree "Licenciado" in Environmental Sciences (2001, Spain). PhD in Aerobiology (2007, UK). Lived, acquired training and worked in Spain, UK, Germany and Poland. I have shared the outcome from my work previous to 2013 as scientific speaker in events held in those countries as well as in Switzerland and Finland. After 12 years performing research and working in institutions linked with environmental research and management, in 2013 I found myself in a period of transition searching for a new position or funding to support my own line of research. In the current competitive scenario, in order to demonstrate my capacities instead of just moving my cv waiting for my next opportunity to arrive, I decided to invest my energy and time in opening my own line of research sharing it in this blog. In March 2017 the budget reserved for this project has ended and its weekly basis time frame discontinued until new forms of economic and/or institutional support are incorporated into the project. The value of the data and the original nature of the research presented in this platform and at LinkedIn has proved to be worthy of consideration by the scientific community as well as for publication in scientific journals. However, without a position as member of an institution, it becomes very challenging to be published. I hope that this handicap do not overshadow the value of my achievements and that the Intellectual Property Rights generated with the license of attribution attached are respected and considered by the scientist involved in similar lines of research. **Any comment and feedback aimed to be constructive is welcome as well as any approach exploring professional opportunities to be part of.** In this blog I publish pieces of research focused on addressing relevant environmental questions. Furthermore, I try to break the barrier that academic publications very often offer isolating scientific findings from the general public. In that way I address those topics which I am familiar with, thanks to my training in environmental research, making them available throughout my posts. (see "Framework and Timeline" for a complete index). At this moment, 2017, I am living in Spain with no affiliation attachments. Free to relocate geographically worldwide. If you feel that I could be a contribution to your institution, team and projects don´t hesitate in contact me at d.fdezsevilla (at) or consult my profile at LinkedIn, ResearchGate and Also, I'd appreciate information about any opportunity that you might know and believe it could match with my aptitudes. The conclusions and ideas expressed in each post as part of my own creativity are part of my Intellectual Portfolio and are protected by Intellectual Property Laws. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial conditions. In citing my work from this website, be sure to include the date of access. (c)Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD, 2017. Filling in or Finding Out the gaps around. Publication accessed 20YY-MM-DD at
This entry was posted in Cultural Cognition, Filling in, Finding out, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Cross-pollinators and the risks of specialization. The screw and the knife. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)

  1. Pingback: Cultural cognition and the role it plays in polarizing debates | diego fdez-sevilla

  2. A comment by Vincent Vesterby
    Fellow, Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science

    Hello Diego,
    I found your blog post both insightful and interesting.

    As part of my work as a modern-universal-generalist, I create methods that make it possible to have universal-generalist-understanding. The six digital posters I have on the I2S Conference website provide a summary of the basis of this methodology.

    Everything that exists has intrinsic pattern-of-organization. Each individual instance of some type of thing has as an intrinsic aspect of its ontology the pattern-of-organization of the type. For example, each individual cat has the cat pattern-of-organization. Each House Cat has the House Cat pattern-of-organization, Each Lion has the Lion pattern-of-organization , and each Serval has the Serval pattern. House Cats, Lions, and Servals all have the cat pattern-of-organization.

    Because everything that exists has the pattern-of-organization of the type of thing that it is, what is known about the patterns-of-organization of structure and process of one instance of that pattern can be used to aid understanding of other instances of the pattern. This is the fundamental basis of analogy.

    Most of the time analogy is used in a somewhat random manner, just whenever someone notices that two things or two situations are similar in some way. Analogies are isomorphic-patterns-of-organization. The use of isomorphic-patterns-of-organization in the discipline-independent-transdisciplinarity I have developed uses pattern-of-organization in a highly developed, carefully rigorous objective, universally organized manner.

    The persons who can be identified as cross-pollinators appear to be particularly adept at using analogies, and inclined to see patterns of relation at broader or higher scales than most other people. What they do not have is a specific methodology to do what they do. That is where my work comes in. Modern-universal-generalist methodology, such as discipline-independent-transdisciplinarity, is designed to provide these people with scientifically rigorous tools to significantly enhance their natural talents.

    Your point about the importance of broad well-formed foundations is a required part of generalist understanding. Everything above the level of elementary particles is emergent from the combinations and interactions of lower levels. Understanding that everything from atoms to the universe is composed of complex emergent hierarchies of subcomponents gives a solid foundation to higher level understandings.

    It took me some investigation to figure out what you mean by the term, formation. The use of your meaning is common in the Romance Languages. But Modern English is in large part composed of a mixture other languages, all of which serve as sources of terms and meanings. The translation of formation from Spanish to English might work better for your readers if you use the terms, training and/or education.

    The primary reason universities train specialists is due to the vast quantity of knowledge science has produced. To do good work in most disciplines requires so much knowledge that there is no time for most people to become proficient in more than one discipline. But this is not a bad thing. First, most people do not have the personality traits, talent, or genetic make up to be generalists. Second, essentially all the work and understanding of a generalist is based on the work of great numbers of specialists. Generalists are dependent on the work of specialists, who are the primary discoverers of the general patterns generalists work with. Third, it takes only a few generalists to integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines, but it takes a great many specialists to discover all that knowledge.

    It is nonetheless better for all scientists and leaders to have as much breath and depth of knowledge and understanding as their education and/or training can give them. More breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding is always better. It is just very difficult to achieve.

    The training of generalists is very different from that of specialists. Specialists memorize a great amount of specific details, and achieve understanding within a limited area, based on those details. Generalists need to be exposed to a vast amount of knowledge, but they memorize very little of it. Instead they learn generalist methodologies that integrate all that detailed knowledge into a single coherent body of knowledge wherein the generalist can roam at will, developing understanding of more specific situations wherever necessary.

    I do not think it is an issue of “Specialization vs Multidisciplinary knowledge. The battle.” I think specialists and generalists need to work together in cooperative mutually supportive teams.

    Modern-universal-generalist methodologies correct for cultural cognition, and all the other intellectual errors resulting from unmanaged subjectivism. For example, results are not interpreted in the context of a paradigm. Instead, generalist methodologies allow the intrinsic nature of reality to dictate to the mind the mind’s understanding of reality. (Reality being that which exists.) This is achieved by focusing on the evident patterns-of-organization, rather than on preconceived concepts.

    Modern world problems require both specialists and generalists. They must work together as a team. The universal-world-view of the generalist integrates the specialist knowledges, and thereby corrects for misjudgments and misunderstandings that result from limited viewpoints.

    The current need is that we must deliberately, urgently, train those generalists. The problem is nobody in academia, industry, or government knows how.

    I know how. As far as I have been able to determine, I am the only actual modern-universal-generalist in the world, simply because I am the only one who has developed the required methodologies.

    I am ready to train generalists, if I can find a university or other institution interested in providing that kind of education.

    Best regards,

    Vincent Vesterby
    Fellow, Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science


  3. Steve McCarter.
    Independent Environmental Consultant

    I read your intellectually stimulating post on cross-pollinators with interest. Your point is well taken. I recall an old saying about higher education, B.S. – we all know what that means, M.S. – more of the same, and Ph.D. – piled higher and deeper. The take away is that the higher the level of education, the more narrow the focus and the greater the detail of knowledge on that narrow focus… specialization to the nth degree, What may be missed in that old adage is that critical thinking is generally improved through that process, although it is not always acted upon.

    I agree that higher education is becoming more focused on specialization and that is to the detriment of understanding complex systems. One thing to remember, however, “inside the box” thinking and approaches to avoid being discredited are driven as much by the “politics” of science as by specialization. By politics of science, I mean popular trends which drive the focus of public spending, which in turn drives priorities in research and journal peer reviewed publications. Public trends and sentiments are not tied to science, but rather are tied to activism, general ignorance, and fear. Regarding the statement derived from the study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project, “Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest,” I would argue that this has as much to do with the level of concern expressed vis a vis the various other strata down to those who lack scientific illiteracy and and reasoning capacity. I would also argue that much of that polarization is tied to other philosophical alignments – let us not forget that professionals are as politically involved, sometimes more so, as the average Joe.

    I noted with interest your comment regarding the impact of the human species on the global ecosystem. While we have a greater ability to alter our environment and adapt to conditions that help us survive as a species, we are not the first creatures to dominate the ecosystem on the earth. And we need to remember that the “equilibrium of the ecosystem” is dynamic, not static. The impact of GMOs may or may not be great. I recall the dire warnings about how agricultural monocultures would devastate world food supplies and biodiversity in a few short years. It has not, but it has done nothing to enhance biodiversity either. As far as impacts on the genetic pool, that will depend on the success of reproductive cross breeding and the rate of adaptive viable mutations, but I am digressing from your main point. Do specialists really consider unintended consequences? Probably less so than a generalist and certainly with a narrower focus.

    A true generalist stretches well beyond his chosen field of study. To truly understand the interactions of an ecosystem, the generalist needs to have a fundamental grasp on all of the sciences and how they impinge upon one another. That means understanding the roles and mechanisms of biology, geology, chemistry, physics as well as their subdisciplines with some level of detail. A good foundation in history and philosophy is also necessary. A generalist acquires the knowledge both formally and informally (read as self-study). Education used to serve as a foundation for learning how to learn, a process that serves one through out one’s career, and indeed life, and we seem to have lost that in our system of education. Specialization tends to make technicians of professionals if the individuals allow that to become their sole focus,


  4. Pingback: Resilience in our environment. | diego fdez-sevilla

  5. Pingback: Science, scientists, researchers, policy-makers, and the rest of society. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) | diego fdez-sevilla

  6. Pingback: The Language of Science ( by Diego Fdez-Sevilla) | diego fdez-sevilla

  7. Pingback: So Many Questions, We Have Stopped Asking New Ones. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD) | Diego Fdez-Sevilla, PhD.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s