Balance is elusive but critical for HE leaders

Rather than seeking right answers, getting balances right is the challenge that most leaders face.

One challenge is the balance between competition and cooperation. As I’ve grown older, I have celebrated cooperation, collaboration, inclusion, and harmony more and more, and naked competition less and less. But I still think competition has a place.

In sport that’s undeniable. Amateurs like me do sport for fun and hardly ever compete earnestly these days, but professional sport is all about competition – the competition is important for the players and for the spectators. When a commentator says an athlete is a consummate ‘competitor’ or even a relentless ‘competitor’, it is a compliment.

Pure competition has driven many human endeavours. I think of Scott and Amundsen racing for the South Pole. Then there was George Mallory, who disappeared from sight near the peak of Everest, not to be found till decades later, and Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay triumphantly reaching the summit.

Competition plays a strange role in driving progress. In each of these races it was clear that someone was going to get there, but people literally risked their lives to get there first.

In science it is also often the case that someone will get there. Charles Darwin sat on his ideas about evolution for decades, and then suddenly published together with Alfred Russell Wallace, when the latter put forward the same concepts. Craig Venter developed a new strategy for sequencing the human genome, and he and Francis Collins (who led the public project) joined forces to announce the first draft.

In my own career I have applied myself relentlessly in an effort to avoid being scooped and to get there first with the lab’s research – and yes, I sort of push my own students in the same way. Sometimes the pressure and the excitement is palpable. The stakes are high. Success is exhilarating and failure feels awful.

But why do we care so much when humanity will have the answer anyway? Shouldn’t we relax, hold hands, and cross the finish line together? Shouldn’t we abandon the competitive aspects, and all the trappings of triumphant celebration: awards, impact factors, H indices, citations, and other measures that come with getting work out first in top journals. Shouldn’t we just all work together to push science forward?

Part of me says yes – let’s figure out how to just work together. But another part thinks that is unrealistic and we need to maintain these races that drive science forward. Because part of the motivation of science is related to getting there first. While other parts are motivated by curiosity, the fun of knowing things, unique creativity, and the pleasure of working together with fellow scientists.

We can’t abandon competition completely because some of the most boring stages of the journey are motivated by competition rather than anything else. The journey from scientific exploration to application is much longer and involves more steps than many people imagine.

The last triumphant strides – when a discovery becomes a therapy, or an invention, are exciting, but they are the exceptions. There are always less exciting milestones along the way. Securing each milestone is like navigating level after level of a video game. Fortunately, the motivation to be the first one to conquer each level – even the boring ones – can be intense. This drives progress every day. Students and their supervisors push themselves to find the fastest and cheapest way forward and these explorers, like scouts in an army, help society to find solutions to the most intricate and complex problems.

Could this happen via cooperation? Some of it could but not all. Sometimes it is necessary for people to spread out and commit themselves to different solutions, secure in the knowledge that the risks they are taking are worth it, because they will be celebrated if they scale each mini-Everest first.

Sometimes competition reminds us that other people – our communities – care about our work.

When I look back at the scientific discoveries I have been involved in during my career, I realise that most, if not all, of them would have been carried out by others had I never been born. For a scientist, in contrast to a creative musician or writer, one’s contributions are seldom unique.

But it is good to be a part of the game. Part of the relentless pressure of human progress and that is often good progress. For me it is progress towards curing Sickle Cell Anemia and other devastating human genetic diseases. There is light at the end of the tunnel now and these conditions will be cured but it would not have happened if there had not been this intense global culture of competition – or at least I don’t think it would.

Professor Merlin Crossley is DVC (Academic Quality) at UNSW



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