Approaching stalemate?

    In a utopian world, conferences represent an ideal forum from which to disseminate scientific knowledge to the community through sharing and discussion of the latest developments. The concentration of top scientists, not necessarily working in the same specific field, fosters contacts between junior and senior researchers in a less informal, and often more productive, way than could be achieved by email or phone calls. Meetings can be considered “think tanks” that help sort out technical problems and refuel the researcher's inquisitive mind. Above all, conferences are often the birthplace of fruitful collaborations that culminate in publications that significantly advance the field.

    Rumblings of discontent with the current incarnation of the conference system, however, can be heard at almost every immunology meeting. The leading complaints are that either the talks are primarily reviews of old data, the results have been aired at previous meetings or they are newly published. In fast-moving areas of science such as immunology, researchers are discovering that the field may be too competitive to discuss their latest findings openly without getting “scooped”. All too often, exciting research is now only presented once the authors have secured publication.

    Although some competition between immunologists can be beneficial, too much of the wrong kind may have eroded trust, and therefore efficiency, in the field. Healthy competition can spur labs to attain research goals faster, but it can also lead to waste. For example, rivalry between the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD) has led to plans to simultaneously evaluate the same canary pox-gp120 HIV-1 vaccine vector, at a cost of $60–80 and $35–40 million, respectively. This type of duplicated effort is a colossal misuse of money, manpower and resources.

    With secrecy comes redundancy, as laboratories find themselves unwittingly working on the same problem. After publication by one laboratory, the same results from another group will be difficult to publish in a top-tier journal, despite the value of the confirmation. Withholding information can hinder the field in other ways. A recent survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and conducted by Eric Campbell and colleagues found that 47% of geneticists had been denied information, data or materials in the last three years, which was causing scientists to abandon promising leads. One of the main reasons cited by the principal investigators for withholding information was to protect the ability of their group to publish the data.

    Competition places enormous personal strain on individuals in the biosciences. To succeed, an investigator must produce new research ahead of competing laboratories, necessitating long working hours. According to a 1997 survey, almost one-third of biology PhD students work more than 60 hours per week, compared to almost a quarter of other PhD students. The National Science Foundation has found that 5 hours of work per week is associated with one additional publication, and every publication translates into approximately 0.9 percent higher salary. It seems, therefore, that competition has ensured that these long working hours are essential for success, but with the downside that other personal goals are sacrificed. For instance, the rapid pace of discovery and the short “half-life” of citations in the biosciences makes it difficult for women to have children and return to their career at full speed.

    A recent study compared bioscience to a tournament (see http://www.ascb.org or http://www.nber.org). In terms of economics, the tournament job market offers all employees the chance to win; in academia, this can translate into grant money, tenure and scientific renown. This system propagates competition by converting small difference in output into large differences in success. Researchers that publish first are rewarded with career advancement and better funding. Because success is primarily gauged by publication records, publication—rather than being the first to publicly discuss data at a symposium—is given the greatest weight, reinforcing the current reluctance to openly share new results. Limited funding does not necessarily drive the tournament, as the past few years have seen record funding for the NIH, with President George W. Bush recently providing the largest raise ever: a $3.7 billion increase.

    Are researchers sworn to a life of secrecy in order to gain rewards under the tournament system? There are examples, including the Human Genome Project and certain vaccine trials, where this is obviously not the case. The Human Genome Project's worldwide collaboration produced a completed genome far earlier than was originally anticipated. Thus, scientists can successfully work under conditions of fierce competition if they are prepared to foster productive collaborations. Over the years, intense competition has lead to a breakdown in trust, precipitated by leading researchers refusing to discuss their data openly at conferences. This stifles the field, and younger researchers learn to operate only in an atmosphere of mild paranoia. Openness should be promoted for the sake of scientific progress, before the situation calcifies into a stalemate, as in a bad game of chess, where no one stands to win.

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    Approaching stalemate?. Nat Immunol 3, 201 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/ni0302-201

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