by Maximilian Fochler
Many of us privately or professionally interested in science think that healthy competition is what drives science forward. In current research policy and funding, this belief is so strong that competitiveness has become the central doctrine guiding the governance of research and of individual researchers.
But can too much competition also endanger the very aims we would like research to achieve, such as asking fundamental questions at the frontier of knowledge? This is what a group of high-profile life scientists, including a former editor of Science magazine, suggested in 2014 by warning that the current hyper-competition in the US life sciences may suppress “the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries“ (Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, & Varmus, 2014, p. 5774).
But is science more competitive today than in the past, and if so, why and how? At least two main things have changed. First, in the late twentieth century, driven by rising societal expectations in the innovative capacities of research, many scientific fields have thrived and grown. The life sciences are a strong case here, but not the only example. However, this growth has happened much less in long-term institutional positions, but in a new form of the organisation of research work: project-based temporal employment. This has created a large generation of highly qualified young researchers competing for a basically stagnating or receding number of faculty positions. Second, the rise of new metric forms of keeping track and assessing scientific productivity has made competition seemingly more transparent, but also fuelled it. Impact factors, rankings and other indicator-based measurements do not only represent scientific work, they also shape it, as also Alex Rushforth and Sarah de Rijcke argue in a recent blogpost. Because they matter in competition they may also change the very nature of this work.