Discussion of James Watson and Competition in Science

After today’s interesting class discussion and reading the first half of The Double Helix, I am beginning to have a better understanding of one the world’s most famous scientists and the way competition affects science. James Watson is an extremely bright scientist who received his Nobel Prize at age 34 for work he started just ten years earlier. However, Watson possesses more than just pure intellect; “Honest Jim” developed skills other than biology and chemistry to help him make scientific discoveries. Watson knew how to manipulate circumstances of a situation to favor him and would not hesitate to do so even if some would consider his actions unethical. Watson divulges examples of this ability in his autobiography when he speaks of his postdoctoral fellowship and Maurice Wilkins. Watson admits he felt “slightly dishonest” when deliberately deceiving his American supervisors about his actual plans for his fellowship (Watson 28). Another example of Watson’s manipulation occurs when describing his first chance to meet Maurice Wilkins. Watson shamelessly hoped to use his attractive sister to become involved in Wilkins’s X-Ray work on DNA (34). All of this ignores the largest controversy surrounding Watson and his partner Francis Crick–the fact that they may have improperly used Rosalind Franklin’s work with X-ray diffraction images of DNA. All in all, the cunning of Watson and Crick helped them better understand how science works and make one the best scientific discoveries of our time, the structure of DNA.

Watson’s questionable actions provoke discussion of competition in science and whether it helps or hinders the advancement of science. Even without unethical usage of data, competition among scientists can spur brilliant scientific breakthroughs years before it was thought possible. Proponents of competition argue it is the reason many scientific advancements are made in an efficient and timely manner. Also, competition ensures the results of one group is criticized and checked by others to establish the validity of the scientific conclusion. If the result is invalid or incomplete, the competing group uses the results as a benchmark to improve the knowledge about the subject. Another advantage is that competition helps different groups take different approaches to solving the same problem. An example of this is from the Human Genome project with the government project competing against private institutions such as Celera. The two groups took slightly different approaches to race to the same final destination.

However, critics of competition point to the inefficiency involved with multiple groups spending millions of dollars on the same projects. Competition can also split results between groups with each one relying solely on their own data. Therefore, competition impedes progress because information is not shared between the groups. Lastly, competition encourages fraud and misconduct among scientists–much like the alleged improper use of Franklin’s data by Watson and Crick to determine the structure of DNA.

-Zac Ramsey

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~ by zacr12 on February 26, 2008.

3 Responses to “Discussion of James Watson and Competition in Science”

  1. References

    Watson, James D (2008). The Double Helix. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  2. For some reason, I always seem to be the lone cynic in the class, but I am okay with that. Playing devil’s advocate is fun.

    Competition in science simply reflects the winner-take-all, market-oriented mentality that dominates the Western world, and in particular the United States. It is not unique to the science world but is present in all disciplines from academia to business. And, like I have mentioned before, science does not exist and develop in a vaccuum, but it is subject to the same external public, political, moralistic, religious, and I am sure numerous other pressures that shape public perception and the world in which we live. Even the clean, sterile environment of a lab cannot escape this reality. No one remembers second place or the guy that “almost” discovered DNA. In third grade science classes across the country, students are taught that Watson and Crick discovered DNA and its doule helix form. Over-simplified? Possibly. But, it gets the main points across.

    Someone is class last week mentioned that while Watson and Crick used Rosalind Franklin’s data and images without her knowledge, their unethical behavior lies in the fact that they did not credit her work in the development of their theory and not in their theory itself. Thus, their idea was their own, just not all of the data that culminated in their idea. It is a fine line between plagiarism and originality, especially in a world where two plus two always equals four, no matter who does the math. And as unethical and unfair as it might be, it seemed easy for them to avoid crossing t’s and dotting i’s when there is really no one to enforce punishment, especially when they were just, hate to say it, but not crediting a woman and not another man. From his book, it doesn’t really seem as if feminism was sweeping through laboratories in England in the late 1940s- early 1950s.

    The book did offer an amusing insight into the background of the discovery of DNA’s double helix form, but I think some of its revelations, while not always politically correct or even ethical, are not all that surprising once you think about it.

  3. Nice post, but I would appreciate it if you sign edyour entry, either with your name or pseudonym. Thanks.

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