There is a lot of competition among scientists

Why researchers need to work together

To outsiders, the Tour de France appears to be a clear “everyone against everyone” competition, and only one person will win in the end. If one examines the dynamics more closely, however, the events are based on fixed agreements and conventions of mutual support. This can be seen, for example, when driving in the slipstream in a crowd, where actually competing drivers take turns in leading the way against the wind in a fixed sequence. Situations of this kind do not only exist in cycling: competition and cooperation, which are usually thought of as opposites, often occur in tense simultaneity - also in science.

We experience every day that competition is an essential part of science. Sometimes competition is even seen as the real engine of scientific progress. The “premium” of this competition has been defined variably over time: from the initial discovery to the pursuit of power and influence - the current competition, according to a widespread assessment, is primarily about money. It is often forgotten that large areas of science tend to act cooperatively and to minimize competitive situations (without being able to avoid them entirely). This does not happen because scientists are morally superior to the rest of society, but out of epistemic necessity: because rational considerations show cooperative behavior as the better option.

Let us assume that science functions as a competitive system. In this case we should expect that scientists with the same or very similar objectives work against each other, if possible in secret, in order to maintain their potential lead. The “bonus” would be the contribution in Science and Nature and the associated gain in reputation that only belongs to the first. But that is seldom the case. Strategies for skillfully overriding competition are much more common. According to science researcher David Edge, open, direct competition exists in science above all - and possibly exclusively - under very specific conditions. This is the case, for example, when there are only a few relevant research questions in an area that can be processed comparatively inexpensively (i.e. no large-scale equipment is required).

Competition and cooperation, which are usually thought of as opposites, often occur in tense simultaneity - also in science.

Kärin Nickelsen

In large parts of the rest of science, on the contrary, one finds an effort to avoid precisely this competition. This is also suggested by relevant longitudinal studies in fields as diverse as photosynthesis research and astrophysics. The actors used complementary methods, which avoided direct competition; and they cultivated an informal exchange and extensive discussion of interim results. Divergent findings could indicate that one group was right and the other was wrong; Then efforts were made to make reciprocal laboratory visits, in which both sides fought to find the correct variant - and this was then published together.

All of this can be justified largely in a utilitarian manner. Strict secrecy deprives you of the opportunity to receive important information from others in exchange; Confrontation instead of collaboration with different results can unnecessarily delay the progress of the work. Examples of these unpleasant consequences are easy to find. For example, the working group of the astrophysicist Martin Ryle in Cambridge was known for isolating itself communicatively. The group was nevertheless successful; so Ryle and his colleague Antony Hewish were deservedly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974. However, due to their strict non-communication with other groups and laboratories, they missed a number of discoveries along the way.

Scientists are in competition; but they only have a chance of success if they are also involved in collaborative structures; and if they also adhere to the norms of cooperation beyond these structures. How these norms are composed, what conditions favor (or endanger) compliance with them, how social interactions change over time: this will be investigated in the future within the framework of the recently approved DFG research group “Cooperation and Competition in Science” in Munich. Using examples from the 1970s to 1990s, the group examines how, depending on the situation, the potential for conflict in the interplay of cooperation and competition can be met in a variable manner. In addition to the internal dynamics of science, the self-image and role models of scientific and science-political actors play a role, the increasing interdependence of science, politics and economics as well as the formative or even penetrative power of political constellations.

These questions are of the greatest relevance not only for history, but also for the present of the sciences. The examples already indicated show that the development and stabilization of competitive or cooperative configurations affect the content and results of scientific work. There is no question that such effects exist. How they are made, which factors and incentive systems will prove to be productive - how the instruments of the various Excellence Initiatives will work, for example: this is anything but clear, and this is exactly where the work of the research group begins. Approaches from the history of science that aim to interpret the actions of actors and patterns of interpretation are combined with a critical, enlightening impetus: relations of cooperation and competition in science are to be structured according to the situation; and scientific actors should be aware of the consequences of their own decisions in this process.

... is professor for the history of science at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. She mainly teaches and researches the history and philosophy of modern life sciences. She has received several international awards for her work in this field. Since 2017 she has been the spokesperson for a DFG research group in Munich on the subject of "Cooperation and Competition in Science".

This article was published in the "Unternehmens Region" magazine 3/2017.