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Conformism in science fueled by unproductive competition, says researcher who got around it

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Yesterday, we noted a prof writing in The Scientist who complained that conformism in science was stifling needed innovation: “This mentality is pervasive, affecting all aspects of scientific research from idea generation to funding to the training of the next generation of scientists.” One naturally thinks of the hold Darwinism has on biology, where many questions could be much more fruitfully explored absent a pervasive cultural value of defending Darwinian evolution as the mechanism that created the life machinery we see.

According to genome researcher Aled Edwards, wrong models of how research should be done can be a factor in slowing science down too, which he explains in an interview with Simon Haupt at The Globe & Mail (February 23, 2012):

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?

The way we hand out money, the way we reward scientists, the way we trade in students has created some sort of social structure for how science is done in biomedicine. And that sociology forces us to work on so-called hot areas of science. Ninety per cent of the research is on 10% of the genes. And industry is relying on us to be innovative? We know that novel discoveries are the key to uncovering the cures for autism, for schizophrenia, for cancers, for Alzheimer’s; we’re not doing society a service in the way we do research.

So a group decided to break the logjam by Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), a government-funded non-profit based in Toronto and Oxford, England, that gives away its research instead of patenting it.

The SGC has created over 1,000 molecules and published descriptions and illustrations of them. How does that help solve the problem?

In every other universe, people would patent the molecules because one might become the seed for a drug discovery program—it could be the “aha” moment. But our lab in Oxford collaborated with a lab in Harvard, with knowledge given by GlaxoSmithKline and a patent by Mitsubishi to generate one of these molecules. We published our findings in Nature. In the year following, five or six papers [were published] linking the target of that small molecule to leukemia. It’s taken the cancer world by storm. It all happened literally within 20 months. If we were to want to sign an agreement beforehand to decide who owns what when we invent it, we’d still be at the lawyer stage, trying to negotiate over imaginary results, over imaginary money.

An analogy might be to inventing a competitive sport. A lot of collaboration is needed in the beginning in order to get agreement about rules, equipment, etc. Competition dominates later, when efficiency, effectiveness and innovation within the newly existing sport can be rewarded.

There may be a lesson here for origin of life research as well. Most researchers use a Darwinian model of competition to try to understand it, and they get nowhere. Perhaps life could only get started with a collaborative model, where all the needed structures originally cooperate to reach certain goals, and compete after an ecology is established.

Such a model does not rule out design, which may be a key drawback today.


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