Michael Ashburner on Competition in Science
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Jul 2003

Different fields have different characters. Some fields are hyper-competitive. It’s well known that the tumor virus field was totally unreasonably competitive. By and large Drosophila biology hasn’t been. Drosophila biology has had a very strong tradition right at the beginning in 1910 of being collaborative rather than competitive. But people do get very competitive. It can sometimes work out. I’ve had lots of competitions where I have been involved in competitive situations. Sometimes, it really depends upon the person—actually really much more a personal chemistry between the two people.

The egos get in the way. It’s very complex. Some competition is good because otherwise people get lazy and experiments should be repeated. It depends how surprising the result is. If the result is very surprising and unexpected and not predicted on current models then no one’s going to believe [it] till it’s repeated anyway. If two different groups competitively come up with the same result then it will get accepted much more quickly. Of course they could be the same artifact.

I think there are people who are hyper competitive and thrive on competition. I don’t really because I don’t like that pressure. I’d much rather do things in my own time.

It’s just like competition for a woman. If another man were here we would both be trying to compete for your attention. It’s just the same. We’d just substitute your body for a scientific paper. It’s just human nature. Some people are more competitive than others. They’re more competitive for women or for running a marathon or for doing science.

But you see the difference in science in theory [is] two men couldn’t cooperatively seduce one woman, yeah? That probably happens, but it’s not very often. It’s possible. Even that would probably start getting rather competitive at a certain stage in the game. But in science, if two scientists or two groups of scientists find themselves doing the same thing at least they had the chance to cooperate. I think they should take [it] if they can.

But you can cooperate with people for whom you have a high regard and respect. You can’t—if I found that, you know, that “Joe Bloggs” in Arkansas was competing with me and I thought he was a shit and stupid. There’s no question. I wouldn’t cooperate with him—but if it was someone I respected, I’d much rather cooperate if I can. I’ve been in situations where I could have cooperated had people behaved differently. But they behaved in such a way that I thought, bugger it, and [decided] to compete with them.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner