Is Competition good for Science?

I have been a strong supporter of Capitalism. I believe in free trade, unbridled competition, and the consumer’s right to make choices in their self-interest. Laissez-faire capitalism, and the competition that it breeds, I often see as key to well-functioning economies and competition is essential to good long-term solutions without exception.

As noted I have held this view for a long time, and without exception, but recently I have been deeply challenged as to whether this model is applicable to all pursuits. In particular I am questioning whether competition is truly good for science.  This is not a statement I make lightly and is made after much reflection on the discipline and the nature of the industry I work, both as lecturer and a practitioner of I/O psychology.

There is a growing uprising against what many perceive as the management takeover of universities. This open source article ‘The Academic Manifesto’ speaks of this view and its opening paragraph captures the essence of the article:

“… The Wolf has colonised academia with a mercenary army of professional administrators, armed with spreadsheets, output indicators and audit procedures, loudly accompanied by the Efficiency and Excellence March. Management has proclaimed academics the enemy within: academics cannot be trusted, and so have to be tested and monitored, under the permanent threat of reorganisation, termination and dismissal…”

While I can certainly see efficiencies that can be made in universities and that the need for accountability is high, I can’t help but agree with the writers that the current KPIs don’t meet the grade (no pun intended). The ‘publish or perish’ phenomena works counter to producing quality research that is developed over the long-term.

Competition also leads to a lack of valuable, but not newsworthy, research. This topic has also been discussed previously in this blog (the-problem-with-academia-as-a-medium-of-change-or-critique), but the key issue of replication that is at the heart of our science is sorely lacking (Earp BD and Trafimow D (2015) Replication, falsification, and the crisis of confidence in social psychology. Front. Psychol. 6:621).

We have created new terms such as HARKing that describe how we have moved away from hypothesis testing, which is central to science, and into defining hypotheses only after the results are in (Bosco, F. A., Aguinis, H., Field, J. G., Pierce, C. A., & Dalton, D. R. (in press). HARKing’s threat to organizational research: Evidence from primary and meta-analytic sources. Personnel Psychology.)

Likewise the increased growth in universities, and the competition between them, without a growth in jobs is being questioned in many countries. When a degree simply becomes a means to an end, does it provide the well-rounded educated population that is required to have a fully functioning progressive Society?

At a practitioner level, the folly of competition is perhaps most apparent in the likes of psychometric testing; an industry I’m acutely familiar with. Test publishers go to great lengths to differentiate themselves so as to carve a niche in the competitive landscape (are-tests-really-that-different) . This is despite the fact that construct validity, which is the centre piece of modern validity theory, in essence requires cross validation.  The result is a myriad of test providers sprouting the “mine is bigger than yours” rhetoric at the detriment of science.  Many times users are more concerned about the colour used in reports than about the science and validity of that test.

Contrast this with a non-competitive approach to science. The examples are numerous, but given the interest in psychology take, as an example, the Human Brain project. Here we have scientists collaborating around a common goal towards a target date of 2023. 112 partners in 24 countries and the driver is not competition but the objective itself of truly expanding our knowledge of the human brain.

We have the US equivalent which called the Brain Initiative and there is further collaboration to create the combined efforts of these two undertakings. With the advancements in physics that has given rise to brain scanning technology, we now understand more than ever about the processes of the mind. This simply would not be possible under the competitive model applied to science.

My experience as a practitioner selling assessment and consulting solutions, as a lecturer who has taught across multiple universities and as a general science buff, have led me to see the downside of competition for science. Competition still has a place in my heart, but perhaps like chardonnay and steak their value may not always be realised when combined.

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