Elbert Branscomb on Competition in Science
  Elbert Branscomb     Biography    
Recorded: 30 May 2003

So, yes, its highly competitive. But there is a sense in which I think it is not a thing apart from—if you go into any academic department doing any kind of work where people are competing for research funds. You see a primatology or animal behavior situation which is in general pretty fiercely competitive. And with a lot of aggression and battling and maneuvering and all of the usual tricks and strategies and coalitions forming and all the stuff that you see in any situation where the gains are significant on a personal scale and the risks are high, and its unpredictable.

The genome project has in some way turned the flame up on that in part because the unit of effort is now large and so instead of grants of a few hundred thousand, there are grants of a few millions. And there’s much more public attention and so on. So in that sense it has been a higher temperature version of the standard way life works.

It struck me when I first went into graduate school in theoretical physics that the real world of theoretical physics was very unlike the childish romance that I had which was people struggling to understand how matter works, the laws of matter. It was that, but mostly only as a device for the ambitions of ambitious men, ambitious people. Or that there was a good deal of that, inevitably so. It struck me like the theoretical physics was really like life in the garment center, it was just rough and rugged and competitive. And quite often you would see behavior in which people, if they were really interested in exposing the truth, they would not behave at all like they actually behaved. They even would obscure the truth in order to advance themselves. And it just seems to me that we shouldn’t expect science or scientists to be fundamentally different than anybody else. Richard Feynman had bothered to write a bit on this problem about how the peculiar situation that very good science requires extremely ambitious, ego motivated people. And so it’s pretty clashy up there. Who discovered what? Who gets credit for what? Who was the first to publish? And it is who did the biggest and the most? And the genome project was very much like that. And in my view there were some substantial costs to this primatological reality about our undertaking. It was a substantial tax upon the effort. On the other hand I think overall I would say it’s first of all trying to do away with it is a little bit like trying to suppress libido in general. It’s a silly thing to undertake to do though. Societies attempt to do so quite regularly. But nonetheless—and I think there was a peculiar feature, you know, the genome project is celebrated for having taken a new direction in one very fundamental way. That the undertaking was of such a nature, different than research in that the products of the research were not the property of the people who did the work. It’s a little bit ridiculous to imagine that the products of publicly funded research in general are in any sense owned by the people who did the work, or it’s a sting to think about. That is, for example, you can still get money from all the funding agencies to sequence DNA, but you don’t have to make the sequence public. Only if you’re a large scale sequencing center do you have to make it public. Nonetheless, this idea that we would work together in some sense, that we would cooperate in some sense and that we would make our results instantly public, that was truly profound and revolutionary, and both sharpened and shifted the nature of the competition. Now it was to the swift just in producing stuff or appearing to produce it. But it did give the whole enterprise a kind of a higher utility to all those out there who were funding it to the world, and in an incredibly impressive way. And we’ll model a lot of what we now do as Francis and others have intoned—you know many have said, actually, that we should now, we should now stop doing that sort of thing and go back to real science where individual investigator and its controlled and each guy owns his clones and its’ all very medieval in that sense, you know, each little princeling in his own tower.

And that is an extremely productive way to get a lot of good ideas developed and did a lot of discovery. I think it will always be the fundamental engine of biological science, I think for a very long time. But the idea of doing a human genome, doing the kinds of things that we did in sequencing genomes in this project will be a model for a lot else of the same character. Massive, “discovery science” projects which are done just to produce the foundational informational structure and resource structure that can empower any undergraduate anywhere to go after questions that would be utterly out of the question otherwise. It really democratizes, in a certain sense, and universalizes scientific discovery as best as that can be done. I think this is its great, its’ great benefit and great power.

Elbert Branscomb received his B.A. in physics from Reed College (1957) and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Syracuse University (1964). In 1964 he joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a theoretical physicist and became a senior biomedical scientist in 1969. In 1986, when the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a program to map and sequence the human genome, he assumed responsibility for the computational and mathematical component of LLNL's human genome program. In 1996 Dr. Branscomb was named the Director of the DOE's Joint Genome Institute. Since November of 2000, he has held the position of Chief Scientist, US DOE Genome Program. In this capacity, he assists the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the furtherance of its genomics-related research programs. In recognition of his scientific accomplishments, he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship in 2001.