Competion in Science

A recent NYT article on competition and collaboration in science made me think about my own work.  What are my natural tendencies?   Is it better in one situation to collaborate instead of compete?

Some argue that competition is the best way to develop a diverse set of scientific theories.  Karl Popper discusses competition as means for generating competing conjectures or tentative theories (TT)  when studying a problem situation (PS).  Through a process of theory formulation and error checking  (EE), we can evolve towards newer and more interesting problems (Wikipedia).

PS_1 \rightarrow TT_1 \rightarrow EE_1 \rightarrow PS_2

What does this mean for science?  For me, it means I have the freedom to generate new theories, test them and not be afraid.   Whether I am right or wrong I’m stretching the field and challenging assumptions.

Competitions raise a complicated set of issues. When people compete, they may be more likely to cut corners and make unethical decisions.  Competitions encourage a redundancy of human thought, time, money, and effort.  The many teams competing to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days can’t all win.

A look back to 2003 and the first human genome project is a successful/helpful competition between Craig Venter and Francis Collins of The Human Genome Project. Venter’s team finished first by using shotgun sequencing, though the slower team used a clone-by-clone method that in the end produced more accurate results. Picture 1

How would a collaborative process have changed the human genome project?  It would have produced a broad agreement over which method is best to sequence a genome, and likely would have considerably slowed the final outcome, a complete human genome.  In another example of consensus building, Jack Colford, a UC Berkeley professor, mentioned to me that he watched the distasteful congealing of settled science occur at an experts working group he attended.  So, when is collaboration beneficial for science?

As a dreamer,  I want to believe that sharing and generosity will prevail in some situations.  Take for example the sharing of scientific information pioneered by members of the Open Access publishing  movement, Science Commons (Creative Commons), PLOS, NCBI – GenBank, and others.  180px-Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svg-1Providing free peer-reviewed scientific findings in the original format will hopefully reduce the number of people tirelessly and accidentally duplicating existing work, and improve circulation of data to poorer countries. Can Popper imagine that this new group of Open Access collaborators evolved because they are more ‘fit’ for the current environment that those who compete for paying users (as in the standard model of science journals).  Have we evolved to become collaborators in this instance?

Along the path of scientific development, it appears that the use of collaboration and competition each generate thousands of side-paths that split from the main trail  and may provide short-cuts… or take us to new, more interesting paths.  In this metaphore, the width of the path is created by the number of users who walk it.  So paths generated by collaborations, or paths like NCBI-GenBank with huge repositories of free sequence information, are more like highways than unmarked trails.  The exciting thing is that, just like my weekend hikes in Marin Co,  I get to choose my own path.

Please chime in if you have any thoughts on this or want to correct me!

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2 responses to “Competion in Science

  1. I have recently been exposed to the competition/collaboration dichotomy. On the whole, as a non-academic professional, I tack towards the collaboration model. One nice thing about not being an academic is that your work at the local level can duplicate stuff that’s going on in another part of the country, another city, another department, etc. And it’s actually seen as a virtue for you to say, “I saw X do this, which inspired me to try the same thing.” It shows you’re savvy and keeping current.

    On the other hand, I’ve been asked by a professor to come in and kind of “punch up” an article one of his doctoral students wrote, since I have practical experience to balance his theoretical backing. As I have shared with them projects I am aware of that complement our work, their reaction hasn’t been as positive as I thought it would be. It’s been a little paranoid, like, “Oh shit, this reinforces our feeling that we need to get this article published ASAP before somebody comes along and publishes on the same thing.” Don’t get me wrong, they’re not Machiavellian about it. But it’s definitely a different vibe than the professional community.

    You need to call me and let me know when you’re coming.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. The days of doing secret work in your locked laboratory should be over.

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