We are surrounded by competition, from the inane to the highbrow. We love competition. The last three months alone have given us the gift of the Tour de France, the Euros, the Olympics, the Paralymics and Emma Raducanu at the US Open – all marked by brilliant competition of the highest level. And it’s not just sport – last week Lil Nas X won three MTV Awards, the shortlist for literature’s Booker Prize was announced this week with the winner to be announced in about six weeks time, while art’s Turner Prize winner is revealed at the start of December. Competition hones performance and promotes excellence. Competition establishes benchmarks and enables others to see how they match up. Competition generates new ideas, new ways of thinking and of doing, and creates innovative approaches and solutions. Competition is one of the great contributors to progress. Competition creates respect. Used properly, competition enables self-improvement, enhances self-esteem and fosters inclusivity.

In academic research we live amidst competition: competition for studentships and research finds; competition to publish in the best journals; competition to get the best graduate students. We even create competition: our fields of undergraduate medicine study have a prize for the best research project; we have prizes for best presentations by graduate students at the annual conference and for best publications by graduate students and by postdocs; we have our Faculty Career Track Fellowships. All competitions. The dust has settled on the REF submission, but once the findings are out, all sorts of league tables – which represent the results of the competition amongst universities and which bring us financial reward – will be created. Recently, we found out about our upward moves in the QS World University Rankings, in the NSS, and in the Guardian Best UK Universities league table. All competitions. Our performance in these competitions gives us a collective sense of achievement and of pride and also indicates we are “heading in the right direction”. We love competitions – we create them, we enter them, we thrive on them.

Whenever we submit an application for research funding, we enter a competition. And if several of us submit an application to the same funder in the same round, we are competing against one another. Over the years there have sometimes been complaints about this competitive model of research funding and from time-to-time I have been involved in modest discussions seeking to identify an alternative. But there isn’t a workable one as far as I can see. Some have suggested simply allocating the money to research-intense institutions like ours. But how would such an allocation work? It would need to be based on metrics driven by the outcomes of previous competitions. How would such an allocation model allow for new ideas and for new entrants into the research space? Wouldn’t this just make us lose our competitive edge and become lazy in thought and action? Anyway, allocation to institutions would necessitate the need for an immense internal infrastructure and would require an internal competition for what would be insufficient funds to go around, so it would simply move a big competition to a smaller, more private and perhaps more acrimonious one. Furthermore, it would create a difficult to penetrate layer between the funder’s strategy and the funded researcher. There have also been suggestions of a lottery-style allocation, where applications, presumably only those that have been subject to a process to guarantee that they meet a quality threshold (isn’t that a competition?) simply go into a “pot” and are “pulled out” randomly for success or failure. This would not seem to be ideal for continuity of research programs or careers and a lot of good things might be lost. Nevertheless, some people do see this as a fair way to distribute funds.

Why am I writing about this now? Why can’t I just bask in Millie and Liam winning Love Island? Well recently, I learned of a dust-up in the Dutch academic community where older, successful professors had published an article criticising a new recognition and reward system for scientists in The Netherlands that seems not to involve traditional competition or to fully recognise previous competitive success. I have not read the article, but I am guessing they made the arguments I made earlier about the value of competition. This article was countered by another group of younger, emerging researchers who argued that competition in research is harmful and actually restricts progress. I think there is also some truth in this argument too. The desire for success through competition can trigger inappropriate and unethical behaviours. That is one of the genuine harms of our competitive academic environment. Competition can also create successful “research factories” that act to prevent others encroaching into the research area, so stifling the opportunities and development of others and potentially limiting innovation and progress. So competition does need to be fair.

We face big global challenges right now, particularly those that link planetary and human health, and our research has to step up to enable these challenges to be met. This will require large scale collaboration across disciplines and for us, this must be beyond the life and medical sciences. It will require the linking of discovery, translational and implementation science. We need to pool ideas and resources and work in consortia acting towards a common, truly worthwhile and meaningful goal. This will be costly, so in the absence of a really significant input of new funds, there will need to be fewer, but larger, projects. We need to put aside our competitive tendencies and join with others to develop new and effective research programmes to design and test novel strategies in order to find solutions to the big challenges and find ways of delivering these quickly for the benefit of the planet and the population. Already we know that funders will support research on the grand challenges through large awards made through the traditional competitive route. This route will be retained because it is known to drive innovative research. So competition IS here to stay, and the stakes will be even higher ….. I do not see that the generic funding model will change (i.e. competition will be retained for all the positive reasons I outlined earlier). However, I do see that in order for us to fully benefit from the opportunities to be offered, we will need to channel our competitive tendencies in the right way and be organised, strategic and collaborative.  I’ve got to finish now … Celebrity Masterchef is about to start ….   

Is competition good for us? by Professor Philip Calder

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