We need much more of Leonardo’s left and right brain collaboration

1 November 2019

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the life of Leonardo da Vinci and the most comprehensive exhibition of his work has just opened in Paris.

The drawings and paintings on show at the Louvre reflect his wide range of interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology, botany and biology – demonstrating an extraordinary array of intellectual pursuits.

Five centuries on, deep specialisation has of course led to many remarkable discoveries and innovations, but also to a dramatic shortage of such valuable polymaths. In science and perhaps particularly in data science, many of our big challenges are simply not amenable to a single disciplinary focus.

The interplay between subjects is absolutely necessary when we think of complex problems – climate change, virus spread, economic stability and population growth for instance, and contributions from within data science often feel more like an intricate Venn diagram of intersecting disciplines.

Some institutions such as the Santa Fe Institute or the Oxford Martin School are championing this multi-disciplinary approach, but most university structures still support a collection of isolated silos, both in terms of academic staff and of their students, with very little cross-pollination of either with other disciplines or departments.

We may not all be natural Leonardos but we do need an educated workforce capable of finding a common discourse across different specialisms. We humbly admit that data scientists may need to work hardest of all.