How the pandemic has reshaped collaboration and competition in science

For as long as people have pointed telescopes at the night sky and slipped drops of pond water under microscopes, competition has been as much a part of the scientific enterprise as curiosity, creativity, and discovery. And for centuries, that has served humanity well. Rivalries push fields forward; Tesla versus Edison sparked the electrical revolution, Pasteur versus Koch showed us how to fight once invisible sources of infection, Joliet-Curie versus Meitner ushered in the nuclear age.

But a global health crisis is no time for guarding secrets. In the last year and a half, Covid-19 showed the world what’s possible when scientists put collaboration first.

On Tuesday, as part of the Milken Institute’s Future of Health Summit, STAT executive editor Rick Berke asked a panel of experts how the pandemic has reshaped the cultural landscape in science. They hailed the widespread adoption of preprints for accelerating the exchange of information and ideas, but said there’s a need to rethink long standing incentive structures in science that have favored the individual and rewarded people for staying in their own lanes.


“There’s still that tension,” said Kathryn Richmond, senior director of the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, who oversees $200 million in grants to early-stage researchers who might not qualify for traditional funding opportunities. “Even now, 20 years after the Allen Institute was founded on the concept of team science and making these brain atlases so that the whole field can use them, when we bring people in to join the organization, sometimes they say, ‘I can sit on these results for a little bit, can’t I? And just dig a little deeper?’ And it’s like ‘no, this is open science — the data, the methods, it all goes out before you publish.’”

Here are other highlights from the event, edited lightly for clarity.


What was it like early on in your careers, were you always looking over your shoulder?

Cori Bargmann, head of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: I started in a competitive field, the early discovery of oncogenes. I had the experience of scooping other people and being scooped, and in the end those things are not so different. Looking back on them, it’s wonderful that important results were built together, but you don’t feel that way when you’re starting out and needing to make your name.

Randy Shekman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and UC Berkeley professor of cell and developmental biology, 2013 Nobel Laureate: As a grad student, I was always petrified when I opened the next issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences to find the work of our competitors. As a result of that experience, when I started my own lab, I decided I wanted to be in an area that was less competitive, where I could work at my own pace on my own ideas. As time went on, the competition I did have was with my own former students. But that was always a very creative tension, so competition can be a good thing.

On how Covid-19 catalyzed an unprecedented level of collaboration across scientific communities:

Manuel Guzman, President of CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society: I have to thank our colleagues at the Allen Institute, because over the last year they were one of the first to step forward and reach out to content providers like us to contribute to a consolidation of information that would underpin R&D efforts on finding therapeutics and vaccines for Covid. And we were one of the first organizations to contribute roughly 50,000 chemical substances to that effort.

Up until the last year, there was a belief that content management, knowledge management, was something companies could gain a competitive advantage on. I think there was a revelation that happened that will continue to result in many organizations looking for data companies to partner with, and to potentially support the concept of these hubs emerging. I see a glaring need, especially on the drug discovery side, for some endorsed party to be the hub for this information management piece.

Bargmann: At CZI, one of the things we’ve been doing is funding preprints, creating ways for authors to share results when they think they’re ready to share. We were early supporters of bioRxiv, and during the pandemic, together with Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory and Yale University and the British Medical Journal launched a new program called, medRxiv, that specifically puts out preprints on more medically relevant topics. During the pandemic, about one-quarter of all papers were published as preprints before they appeared in the final literature. And that just accelerated the transmission of those results and ideas that much more quickly.

On how philanthropies can create new incentive structures to encourage collaboration:

Richmond: We use different mechanisms depending on the problems we’re facing. Sometimes we do open calls, where we open it up to the research community and ask them what we should be measuring. It’s a different way to gauge the landscape for those breakthrough ideas. We also look to fund for success. So if we’re asking a team to build a database, to fund it for success, that means how usable is that database? Putting it out there is one thing, but putting it out there in a way that’s easily consumable, searchable, evergreen, that can make such a difference for moving science forward.

Schekman: Money helps to encourage people. But with our new Parkinson’s initiative, we thought it would be best to start with people who already had a sense for the value of collaboration. So we put out a call for international teams of investigators. The core of each team had to consist of at least two individuals who’d already established a meaningful collaboration — writing papers together, or organizing meetings together — so they already understood the give and take of that kind of relationship. As a result we’ve now assembled 21 teams with 100 different principal investigators around the world to whom we’ve committed almost $350 million to, who are now engaged in an online forum closed to those individuals. We insist every piece of work be published on a preprint archive, and further insisted that everything be published in gold-standard open access journals.

On what it takes to sustainable more global scientific partnerships into the future:

Richmond: One thing that’s not always obvious, but not all funders will fund international collaborations. Philanthropy can play a huge role here in taking that risk to really bring the science together. For some of our awardees, it’s the first time their team, located around the world, can all be funded off the same grant.

Schekman: Political separations are the clear and present danger to international cooperation. Right now I’m very concerned about our deteriorating relationship with China, which is emerging as a powerful force in basic science. Their government has committed sums of money that greatly exceed what we’re committing in this country. But the problem is that we’re closing down. If you’re an NIH investigator, it’s extremely difficult to engage in collaboration with someone in China right now. And we risk, at our own peril, closing the door to basic science collaborations with China.

Bargmann: I would like to make a separation between politics and science. We are in a period where there’s more tension between the U.S. and China and more competition between them as major political axes. But in terms of science, in terms of understanding the world and how to prevent infectious diseases, China and the U.S. are on the same side. What’s on the other side is diseases. We should celebrate the ability of the world as a whole to recognize the value of science, and if we in the U.S. believe that science is important for our continued success economically and politically, we should be supporting more science here, we shouldn’t be afraid of the science elsewhere.

For any young scientists sitting at their lab bench in grad school right now, trying to deal with the competition question, what advice do you have for someone just starting out?

Richmond: Make as many connections across fields as you can, and get to know people in other disciplines, because the science is moving to where it’s really starting to merge. Some of the most exciting approaches are at those intersections, and you can’t be an expert in all of them. So think broadly and grab those big ideas when they come your way.

Schekman: Remain flexible in your career aspirations. Now, as the pandemic recedes, the opportunities for a PhD scientist in biotech are enormous. It’s still difficult to get an academic position in a research institution, but the number of job openings in biotech are astonishing. And the teamwork inherent in that model as opposed to the individual star system that we have is really very refreshing.


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