A competitive, yet cooperative scientific environment

7 11 2012

Natural disasters have a tendency to bring out both the best and the worst in people.  How better to emphasize the changing environment of scientific and biomedical research than to strain relationships to the max.

The November 6th New York Times article “A Collective Effort to Save Decades of Research as the Water Rose” emphasizes just how supportive the scientific community has become.  When resources are tight, rather than heightening the competitive spirit, researchers reached out to competitors to aid in rescuing years of often irreplaceable scientific progress.  Sandy’s effect on scientific progress was diminished by heroic efforts to save years of research.

I’m excited to see that the trend in scientific research is moving toward cooperation, rather than competition.  In the past, competition for publishing a particular project first has been the driving force in scientific progress, but it brings about a sense of desperation to move as quickly as possible, which can mean that more mistakes are made.  This urgency and competition between researchers for monetary resources, leading to error, could be behind some of the recent retraction trend.

The spirit of cooperation can lead to more progress than in the past, by sharing resources, leading to more publications from one set of tissue or animals, thus more scientific progress.  It also seems that funding sources are also being more supportive of joint efforts, getting more bang for their buck by selecting to fund many more multi-investigator projects.

While the article definitely evoked emotion and focused on the big picture, the major driving force behind scientific progress, the graduate students were overlooked.  I do have hope that those researchers that offered to aid in keeping research projects on track, would also take on the students doing the research, so that maybe they can gain benefit from cooperation as well.

As a researcher myself, I couldn’t imagine loosing animals or tissue samples that were critical to a current or future experiment.  The article places a lot of focus on how the storm affects the overall progress of research, setting back programs and projects by years, but one thing the article does not address is how it affects students.  A PhD in this day and age can take an average of 4-6+ years, depending on the program, research topic, and research model.  This timeline is based on reaching a series of checkpoints, dependant on research progress and publication.  A setback of 10 years from the loss of a genetically altered mouse is indeed a catastrophe for the researcher and the field, but can also set progress back by years for graduate students.  The loss of samples and animals can mean a setback of a few years, making progress toward graduation ridiculously slow and actually beginning a scientific career could move from age 30 to much later.

There is much to be celebrated from this shining example of how amiable and supportive the scientific community can be.  Thanks to everyone’s effort we can look forward to future progress, rather than having to completely backtrack to replace lost materials.  I just hope that researchers will also remember the manpower behind research progress, and help students progress timely toward their future.

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