Competition in science: a necessary evil or just an evil?

The almost brutal scientific competition displayed in The Double Helix probably came as no surprise to most, if not all, modern readers. Competition in science just seems to be a given these days, and why would it not be when there is an entire rewards system dedicated to driving this competition? I’m not just talking about Nobel prizes either. One decent discovery, theory, or paper can generate all the job offers and peer respect needed to be an incentive for competing.

Since no one is denying that competition exists in science, the question remains, should it? Let us imagine for a moment that there were no rewards or benefits to making discoveries and formulating theories. Sure there would still be those few scientists left with their passion for knowledge and a thirst for insights, but the real drive behind many people’s work would probably be lost. Take Watson and Crick for example, as soon as it became clear to them that Linus Pauling’s idea was so unbelievably wrong that Pauling would soon be working day and night to fix his blunder, Watson knew that he also had to now focus on nothing but the structure of DNA if he wanted to reach the right answer first. This hard work then pays off, when, soon enough, they put together the idea of the double helix. In this example, it was competition that drove Watson and Crick to work harder and faster than ever leading to one of the most important scientific discoveries in human history.

However, there is of course a drawback to this rivalry. The desire to get ahead coupled with a momentary lapse in one’s moral compass can always lead to immoral, illegal, or underhanded moves such as stealing another’s ideas or work. The second problem with competition comes from the lack of collaboration that it can sometimes induce. Two intelligent people working against each other to solve the same problem would surely achieve an answer quicker were they only to combine their brain power and work together. Unfortunately, with different companies, universities, and even countries, working against one another to earn all of the credit, this sharing of ideas is often stunted.

I suppose the conclusion I’m leaning towards is that I have no idea what my conclusion is. Perhaps without rewards and incentives scientific work would transform from a sprint to a crawl. Or perhaps an increase in collaboration between groups would help to speed up scientific work. Who knows?

The only thing that I feel sure of is that if you do have a problem with cutthroat competition in science, you can’t blame the competitors like Watson and Crick, you can only blame the institutions that created their reasons to compete. (The one exception to this rule being those earlier mentioned people who steal ideas. You can blame them. No one likes them.)

–Negative Nancy

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~ by rebeccalhunt on March 19, 2012.

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