Is competition driving innovation or damaging scientific research? | Anonymous academic

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in the scientific world that “competition drives innovation”. This can definitely sometimes be true, but in my experience the reality most of the time is that competition can be hugely wasteful and damaging to research.

Take our lab, where we work in several high-profile areas. We’re aware that we have several major competitors around the world. We want to be first, we need to be first and we must keep it secret. Doing this can make or break a career, or decide a grant application outcome. It can even shape the future direction of the field.

One recent experience throws into sharp relief the dangers of our competitive scientific environment. At one of our regular update meetings a lab member showed their most recent results and explained how they were obtained. But we weren’t quite convinced: the data wasn’t really solid, the analysis not quite complete and the proposed model lacked support. We made our suggestions and moved on.

Within a week, we had heard rumours that one of our competitors had submitted a very similar paper on the same topic. By the following our manuscript was written, and within a few days it was submitted. A short time later it was published. Our lab wasn’t first, but we weren’t really second either. You’d think everyone would have been happy.

But I wasn’t. I have years of experience as a scientist, yet still I was shocked at the speed of the turnaround and how ideas that were questionable one week could be acceptable the next. It felt like the integrity of our research had been abandoned in favour of being first.

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That shaky data is now out there, being read by students, post-docs, lab heads and the general public. It may form the basis for further projects, based on poor conclusions and questionable results. Poor research is carried forward until we reach a dead end. Taxpayer money is wasted. Careers or medicines that may depend on this information moving forward are at worst ruined and abandoned, at best set back.

I feel a certain amount of guilt for not saying something at the time. I’m not a named author and I do not stand to gain from the publication. But several things stood in my way. First, the lab culture: the supervisor is under pressure to publish, to justify the grants and maintain a reputation. Second, the researchers are under pressure to advance their careers, and they know that a staff position can be put at risk if you’re not publishing a high profile, novel research paper. Third, and most important, we are friends and colleagues: how can you realistically question someone’s work when you know how the system operates and what it might cost them?

Far from driving scientific progress, competition is actually taking a negative toll on research output. We need a new model of working that encourages transparency, openness and may improve research standards.

A new grant application system from the Wellcome Trust is a good start, in which applications will encourage openness by publishing proposals regardless of their success. I believe that we need to be open about our ideas before we work on them, establishing a system where we embrace our competitors. If your grant is unsuccessful, maybe there’s a lab out there with which you can collaborate. Why have two of the finest minds in a field pitched against each other when they can work together? Why should the taxpayer have to fund the same work twice or even three times?

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We can eradicate the waste inherent in our current system, both in terms of resources and effort, and ensure the quality of the science is no longer affected by the rush to publish, simply by opening up to our scientific enemies. So please, scientists, next time you meet a rival, tell them everything.

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