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.