James Kent on Competition in Science
  James Kent     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

It’s funny. I have very strange feelings about it. My feelings about competition are very complex. And part of this, I’m coming from Santa Cruz. And UC Santa Cruz is changing now, but it was an experimental college at one point. It was started in the ‘60s and it was sort of, it has a reputation of being a hippie college. And one of the things was at Hampshire and Reed and a few other colleges were saying that is it a really a good thing to always be putting our smartest people into competition with each other?

Could not they build something bigger if they weren’t all trying to work on the same thing, but we were working together on different things? And so, I mean by native I am pretty competitive. I mean if I’m in a game, it’s hard for me not to play to win. But I don’t really think it’s a good thing. I mean I think we need to urge people’s collaborative instincts more than their competitive instincts.

There were a lot of motivations for it. Honestly, probably the strongest was just it was a new and interesting problem for me and I was kind of enjoying it. And this was how it first got started. And I work best that way when it’s not—I think I work best if I’m competing against anybody it’s against myself. I like making new stuff. And I guess one thing that’s different is that science rewards people if they do new stuff, which is good. But for me personally, I don’t get so much joy out of doing something that’s new for the world. I mean that’s great if I do something new and no one else in the world can do it. But if it’s just new to me, I’m very happy. If I’ve never done it before. That’s great. So that was really the main thing for me. It was sort of a new problem and I was putting it together. But then there were other things too because at the time we were—well, really there were two major things. There was one that was kind of temporal. There was a tremendous amount of leverage in this work in that it was sort of a very rare time where I could do something that, if I could make the assembly and the human genome ready one month earlier you have like two thousand, maybe ten thousand scientists who are depending on that and can use it. And so in a way that amplifies my work, so that it’s sort of—I mean it’s kind of in a very abstract sense, but there are that many diseases that will be cured a month sooner. And I felt this. And so that was one thing.

And then partly we were also just—the U.S. Patent Office at the time was kind of insane in the way that it was granting patents on genes. In the early, in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was a difficult thing to sequence things. I think it made sense for some lab that spent two years getting their gene together to be issued the seventeen years, the rights to it if they want which is what a patent is. I don’t think patents are all bad. Just seventeen years and you have to publish it. And in fact with the U.S. it’s still law that you have to license it at reasonable rates.

Jim Kent is a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. After a stint working in the computer animation industry, he entered the Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology Ph.D. program at Santa Cruz. While completing his degree, he became increasingly interested in bioinformatics. Concurrently, the human genome was being sequenced, accumulating in the databases and was scheduled to be released in one month’s time—however, still no technology was in place to assemble its many sequences. In one month, Jim Kent created a computer program called the GigAssembler and computationally compiled for the first time, the entire human genome so that it could be released to the public at its intended deadline.

Jim Kent focuses on understanding the way in which genes are turned on and off to create varying outcomes.