The good, the bad, and the ugly (5.00 / 4) (#12)
by iGrrrl on Wed Mar 28, 2001 at 10:22:46 AM EST
From the trenches of biomedical research, working in a field rife with competition, I'd like to share my opinions and observations.
Where competition seems to have good results
Error correction seems to happen quite often as a result of rivalry and personal dislike. There comes to mind the example of the Big Gun who made groundbreaking contributions, but seems to think his stature means that no data or interpretation from his lab should be questioned. Arrogance of this sort irritates more careful scientists in the same field. They sometimes refer to their work as "cleaning up after the Big Gun's mistakes." In general, this works to straighten out problems arising from accepting the Big Gun's word for it without good peer review. .
Where competition can have bad results
Sometimes two Big Guns get into a rivalry. "It must be X!!" "It must be Y!!" Quite often the reality can be that either X and Y are both true; or that X is true in system 1, and Y is true in system 2. Ego-driven to prove themselves right, these Big Guns can ignore their own data to the contrary, sometimes punishing underlings for daring to contradict the party line. Unintended fraud can arise from this sort of situation, as the underling tries to support the boss' pet idea. These sorts of rivalries can introduce errors into the record.
Where it gets ugly
When a laboratory head puts two underlings on the same project in direct competition, the results might be faster discoveries, but the personal cost to the underlings can be tremendous. The ideal of "information wants to be free" becomes entirely subverted as people hide data, obfuscate techniques, and even sometimes sabotage co-workers. (Errors can also arise in this situation. The desire to be first can lead to less careful work. "Looks like a duck. Quacks like a duck. Must be a duck." But if you don't do the smell test because you're in a hurry, you might miss that it's well-carved decoy with audio.) And what happens if one post-doc gets it done a week before the other? Usually the other gets no credit for their work. I've seen deep depressions, complete disillusionment with science, and even marriages destroyed with people working in this dog-eat-dog, win or lose kind of environment. The heads of such labs do not care about the personal and professional toll of such a workplace. "Cream rises," say. My response to that is, "So does slime."
I work in a fairly competitive environment, but rather than competing against each other, we compete toward a goal of excellence. Lab meetings can be quite painful for people who aren't up to standard. In most cases, however, one is not subject to personal belittlement, but rather shown the level at which they're expected to perform.
One of the better scientists I know (in a snake-pit of a competitive field) used the following tactics in his laboratory:
If you brought him a result right in line with his pet theory, he'd bet you a six pack of beer that you were wrong, and suggest several control experiments. If you (and his pet theory) were wrong, you could start a whole new branch of work leading to a novel publication and save the lab from error. If you were right, you got a six pack of beer. Win-win, for the underling and for the lab.
He would sometimes put two people on different aspects of the same project. One might do the molecular work, the other the cell biological work. The underlings would get equal credit. Also they would be checking each other's conclusions through different experimental avenues (and because it's difficult to get two people to agree to lie about something). They might also have some competition to keep up with each other.
I prefer to compete for something rather than directly against someone. But as the book cited says, the desire to beat out the other guy runs deep and can be harnessed to real progress.
You cannot have a reasonable conversation with someone who regards other people as toys to be played with. localroger
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