Judging from some of the comments on my latest post about the Tonegawa/Karpova kerfuffle, it’s clear that there is not consensus about precisely what relationship a scientist should pursue (or avoid pursuing) with another scientist working on similar research. Part of the disagreement may come down to a difference of opinion about how important it is for scientists to share knowledge relative to protecting their own interests in the hyper-competitive world of academic science. Another part of the disagreement may come down to standards of similarity (i.e., when can we say that project X and project Y are essentially the same line of research?). Finally, there seems to be some disagreement about what motives we can impute to Tonegawa, especially in light of the recently revealed email exchange between them.
Some commenters have suggested that it is prudent for one to minimize collaboration, cooperation, and communication with anyone whose research is in “the same” area as one’s own. This is couched in the language of the need for a junior scientist to “demonstrate independence” in her research and so forth. But surely, we don’t want to say that one shouldn’t collaborate (or cooperate, or even communicate) at all with other scientists studying the same stuff. Taking this policy of “independence” to its extreme would seem to present a big impediment to the kind of communication necessary to build good scientific knowledge — especially if you’d like to do it efficiently. Also, such a policy would provide a big disincentive to share reagents or space, or to publish full details of experimental methods. This, of course, makes it harder to replicate experimental results, and harder to detect fraud.
The full-on adversarial-method approach to building scientific knowledge also supports the grad student vs. grad student model some scientists encourage within their own labs. I dare say the graduate school experience is sufficiently stressful without setting the grad students in a group against each other. (Where else will they learn how to be collegial.)
What counts as “the same” research area? Who gets to make the call about whether two research agendas are the same or relevantly different? If you think your research is different from mine in important ways but I think they’re practically the same, how do we decide who’s right? (If there’s no overlap between different scientists’ research, whence replication, confirmation, and building on the results of others?)
Different experimental approaches seem like they would count as different research projects, even if they were directed at answering the same broad set of scientific questions. (Fans of robustness arguments would point out that we’re likely to learn a lot more about these questions through a multiplicity of approaches.)
Why would a university hire more than one scientist in the same research area? Having some overlap seems like it has the potential to bring about productive collaborations. Hiring more scientists in an area you already have “covered” could also be a good strategy for maintaining dominance in a field when the senior scientist in that area retires or dies. And, scientists (like other academics) are frequently happier when they have people in their organization they can talk to about their work.
Why am I not buying the hypothesis that Tonegawa was just being a good guy, looking out for Karpova’s interests? He seems rather more adamant than a canny academic scientist would be about someone else’s interests, but about as adamant as he would be about his own interests.
If the research is not sufficiently original for tenure, why not let the tenure committees sort that out? What harm comes to Tonegawa from having Karpova pursue research very close to his at MIT? (If her new technique pans out, it might contribute information that could further Tonegawa’s research — whether or not Karpova ends up getting tenure.) Why feel threatened by the prospect of a rising star making progress in his area? Is this a Highlander kind of thing, where Tonegawa thinks there can only be one star in his field? (If so, why did he make it sound like he’d be willing to collaborate with and/or mentor and/or communicate with Karpova if she pursued the same line of research someplace geographically removed from MIT?)
I admit, I haven’t done a mind-meld with the guy. But it stretches credulity to interpret the facts in evidence as definitively supporting his claim that he was just trying to help Karpova. In the meantime, it may be wise for the tribe of science to look at whether these competitive situations are really the best way to build better scientific knowledge.