"Collaboration Within Competition" Is Key to American Technological Innovation

08/04/2011 04:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

As Research Corporation for Science Advancement prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year (as America's oldest foundation dedicated wholly to science), a look back at its history offers insights for the future of U.S. scientific and technological innovation. One of those insights is that collaboration within competition is a powerful tool for maintaining preeminence in innovation.

The point was proven by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, whom Research Corporation funded with grants from 1930 to 1938 to help build the first large cyclotron -- at the University of California at Berkeley. He was a quintessential collaborator, regularly assembling young scientists to develop collectively technological advances, which in turn competed in a world where the competition was of historic magnitude.

John Markoff underscored the point in a recent article in The New York Times ("Laid-Back in the Lab, Maybe, but They Spurred the Weapons Race"):

"In 1952 the physicist Ernest O. Lawrence assembled a group of young scientists to design weapons that were radically different from those being designed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the nation's original nuclear weapons lab. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as the research group came to be known, was the "second lab," intended to compete with Los Alamos and create new ideas, according to Sybil Francis, executive director of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a policy research group, who is also affiliated with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University... In a recent telephone interview she said ... the rivalry between the labs played an essential role in the emergence of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which required lighter, more powerful weapons. 'It is not an exaggeration to say that the competition between the labs was as significant -- or even more significant -- as the United States-Soviet Union competition in driving innovation in the arms race,' she said."

The Times article emphasized the importance of competition among the national laboratories, but it was Lawrence's commitment to scientific collaboration, which made that competition possible: collaboration within competition. Even in Lawrence's time the technology was becoming too complex for individual scientists to make the needed advances on their own. Teamwork was key.

That's even more the case today. The competition for funding from national grant-making entities is fierce, and yet the need for collaboration is greater still.

That's why Research Corporation for Science Advancement is focusing renewed attention on building communities of scientists through which collaboration within competition can take place.

A new RCSA program called "Scialog" -- short for science dialog -- has been funded to provide research grants (initially on solar energy conversion) to scientists at major U.S. research universities and then convene those scientists annually to share ideas on the development of the field. Additional grants are then awarded to scientists in the group who collaborate on further research.

A second program supports the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, a newly formed scientific community composed of recipients of the renowned Cottrell Scholar Award. Those Awards have been presented annually since 1994 by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, to honor outstanding early career scientists in the physical sciences (astronomy, chemistry, and physics) for leadership in integrating research and science teaching at leading U.S. research universities.

The Collaborative brings these highly competitive award-winning scientists together in an ongoing community to collaborate on ideas that will advance the role of scientist-educators: a pressing priority for a nation that seeks to perpetuate its extraordinary history of scientific preeminence in the face of ever-increasing global competition.

Because the members of the Collaborative are physical scientists, it will play a vital role in advancing the science and education that are key to such crucial areas of scientific innovation as solar energy, nanotechnology, DNA chemistry and future space exploration, among others. Here again, the emphasis is on collaboration within competition.

Sybil Francis is correct that it's important to understand the true impact of competition and to focus that competition properly. But collaboration within competition is another key concept -- and one that is especially vital as the science and technology required for transformational innovation is more complicated than ever.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation, and the first devoted wholly to science.