Why do scientists so often shun competition instead of embracing it as a natural component of their job? This attitute indeed appears to be relatively rare relative to other professions in which competition is accepted and incorporated openly into the working strategy: businesses must beat other businesses for customers, lawyers must compete against other lawyers for clients and for victory in court, politicians either win or loose elections against other candidates, and professional athletes make a living out of defeating other athletes.
Competition arises naturally when a resource is scarce and cannot be provided to all those who desire it. In business, it’s the customers’ purchase and loyalty, in politics the vote, and in sports the medal or the cup. Similarly, the scientific system provides limited access to grants and fellowships, discoveries and publications, jobs at all stages, and qualified students and postdocs for a lab seeking to hire. In some cases, such as when competing for grant applications or when seeking to recruit the best researchers, the identity of the competitors is unknown and little can be done to win except to perform as well as possible. In contrast, when the limited resource is a discovery and its publication, the identity of the competitor is often known and must be taken into account to ensure victory. This would entail not sharing critical data prematurely at conferences and keeping a close eye on what the competition is publishing, similarly to how professional athletes often study the moves of their opponents in great detail.
Is there a reason to think that competition is justified in other professions but not in science? In some instances, competition can be beneficial to scientific progress, by forcing higher quality due to increased scrutiny by the community, and encouraging fast progress for fear of loosing credit for a discovery. The danger is that pressure to publish fast could also make the researcher more sloppy and willing to report results before they have been confirmed by sufficient evidence. Some scientists will go further and resort to dirty methods to defeat their competitors, a practice that has been the subject of many urban legends and is clearly wrong for many reasons (to be discussed in a future post). A danger of excessive competition is also that it can limit the sharing and discussing of ideas and thereby stiffle scientific progress.
So why do scientists so often shun competition? One explanation may be found in the early years during which aspiring scientists in high school or in university first decide to pursue scientific research as a career. The criteria by which the best individuals are accepted into universities and Ph.D. programs are mostly noncompetitive: getting good grades or making a meaningful contribution in summer research projects. And what draws most young scientists into research is not winning or “being the best”, but the sheer joy of learning, making discoveries, and working in a lab. By the time young scientists first confront competition, when they apply for a research scholarship or have begun their Ph.D. in a crowded research field, they are caught by surprise and often react defensively.
Lastly, we shall not forget that competition is not new to science – James Watson has claimed that his and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 was the product of fierce competition against Linus Pauling, while Marshall Nirenberg and his team at the National Institutes of Health fought hard to defeat Severo Ochoa in the quest for deciphering the genetic code.
The question thus is not whether or not scientists should be competitive, but rather how to engage in healthy competition that leads to more progress and better work without abolishing communication.
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