Friendly Fire

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Adversarial interactions in the sciences can be grouped into two categories: competition between models*, and competition between labs. One is a stimulant and a spur to good science; the other a recipe for rancour and often a handicap to scientific progress.

Competition between models usually stems from two groups (and they can be two individual research groups or two camps) with different interpretations of how something is functioning. The models that each group forms to explain the issue can then be tested by either adherents or detractors.

At its best then, competition between models can become a kind of antagonistic collaboration. The groups will agree on some things, often many things, but not everything – and those points of disagreement will be the anvils on which new interpretations are forged, tested, and either retained or discarded.

The increasing refinement of the two models need not even progress all the way to a lasting conclusion (a rare event). Like most intractable conflicts, both sides are usually in the right to some extent and the truth may well lie somewhere between the two extremes they occupy.

A good example of the kind of white heat this sort of intellectual combat can generate comes from the membrane trafficking field in the 80s and 90s. The willingness of the molecular cell biology community to engage in a series of protracted engagements over (but not limited to) the mechanism of intra-Golgi transport, the mechanism of protein translocation into the endoplasmic reticulum, and the mechanism of endocytosis, brought about a series of quantum leaps in our understanding of how cells work.

The case of Golgi transport, with the competing models of cisternal maturation and vesicle transport, remains a textbook example for disputes of this sort. In budding yeast cells cisternal maturation has emerged as the victor, but in human cells the situation remains unresolved. The need for greater resolution in order to close in on the truth will undoubtedly be a stimulus for the development of new techniques and assays – another boon for science.

Competition between labs, on the other hand, is generally a squalid and nasty engagement that rarely leaves science the richer. Here there is little or even no disagreement over the data. Rather, the two labs are working on exactly the same problem in two separate geographic locations.

What ensues is a rush to publish. The quicker will reap recognition and rewards; the slower will (grudgingly) make do with weaker acclamation. That rush to publish first can easily lead to corner-cutting, slipshod work, and occasionally outright fraud.

Competition of this type was once not wholly unhealthy, back in the days when a ferocious work ethic was not the norm. Nowadays, in a highly-charged and hypercompetitive environment where the loser may find their career prospects greatly diminished, the difference in terms of application is so little that the principal outcome is a toll on the mind – constant pressure, little relief, little pleasure.

Unfortunately, such engagements may be becoming more frequent. We are in an age of annotation, where much work is needed on routine but important characterisation, and this is ideal terrain for two labs to claim territory and squabble over the intellectual spoils. In such situations there are few solutions: either work harder than the competition (if that’s even possible), be more creative, seek to collaborate to minimise conflict, or cede the ground and move on.

So which would you choose? The cut and thrust of an intellectual duel? Or bombardment and counter-barrage in the research trenches?

*Oliver’s picture shows Charles Darwin (1809-1882), advocate of evolution by natural selection, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), advocate of evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics, preparing to shoot it out. 


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