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Competition or collaboration: where’s the best science?

Posted on 08 August, 2013 by Harry Dayantis
Medical research often straddles the boundary between academic and commercial interests. People often idealise academic institutes as utopian collaborative communes holding the purest of scientific ideals, and demonise the pharmaceutical industry as cold, competitive profit-chasers. These stereotypes oversimplify people’s approaches in both sectors, where the distinction between collaboration and competition is seldom so clear-cut.

In reality, there is plenty of competition in academia just as there is significant collaboration in industry. Researchers are constantly competing for grant money, publication space in prestigious journals and top academic appointments. Meanwhile, no pharmaceutical company could function if it didn’t collaborate with academic institutions, biotech companies and other stakeholders.

Collaboration between academia and industry is now commonplace, but commentators such as Bad Pharma author Ben Goldacre use words like ‘collusion’ to paint agreements as some sort of sinister conspiracy. These value-laden terms do a disservice to the importance of collaborations for the likes of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, for navigating the expensive process of bringing new drugs into the clinic.

There are many grey areas regarding competition and collaboration, and the two concepts are by no means mutually exclusive. One group of collaborating institutions – be they academic or commercial – will often find themselves competing with other collaborations elsewhere. Professor Alan Ashworth, our Chief Executive here at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), was a key member of the group who identified the BRCA2 gene in 1995. Competition between his group and a number of rival groups in the US was part of what motivated them to do some of their best science – work that has laid the foundation for genetic testing and a potential new class of anti-cancer drugs. On the other hand, Professor Ashworth is a big supporter of ‘pre-competitive’ ventures in which institutions and pharmaceutical companies share data with each other, ‘moving the whole field of genetic research forward’.

I don’t think there could ever be a single answer to the question of whether competition or collaboration leads to better science. The two principles are seldom at opposing ends, and the majority of scientific endeavours will contain a mix of the two. The picture of academia and collaborative and industry as competitive is an easy way for critics to rally public opinion against ‘big pharma’, but it is a simplistic view. Science is a human endeavour, and as such both competition and collaboration will always have their place.
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