Our modern world is facing a number of interrelated and complex global problems comprising everything from climate change, cancer, dementia, and mental health -- not to mention a global pandemic that shows little sign of abating. One important but sometimes daunting path to solutions for any number of the challenges facing us today is team science.

Scientific research has historically been performed by a group of scientists, run by one principal investigator, testing out different hypotheses. Team-based approaches encourage these teams to work together, sharing resources, and leveraging expertise from different fields to tackle problems that are larger than one group can handle. This results in combined brain power, equipment, computing power, shared experiences, and diverse expertise. As an emerging mechanism to tackle large issues, team science can result in more expansive thinking that uses pooled resources to analyze complex data in innovative ways.

There are some intriguing questions being asked. For example, does team science impede competition? Can it actually stifle innovation, leading to groupthink? As a nimble asset class that can be deployed outside of the confines of government funding, philanthropy can play a key role in balancing the scales of team science and competition. Setting the proper incentives for scientists can harness competition while promoting team science to truly catalyze discovery.

Benefits of Collaboration and Competition in Science

Collaboration in science can bring together the most innovative thinkers in a field to study a topic. Previous collaborative science projects have generated immense knowledge beyond the initial scientific goals. One of the largest team science initiatives to date is the Human Genome Project. It has yielded beneficial data, tools, and partnerships that have made genetic sequencing possible, and provided vital tools for all scientific fields to accelerate discovery.

Competition in a scientific field can drive innovation and increase productivity. For example, competition has allowed for science to test multiple competing hypotheses. This can increase the chances for success if these hypotheses can be tested and verified or debunked by others. Many times, the pressure of competition can be detrimental, as it can impact quality of the work, promote falsification of data, and be harmful to the mental health of researchers. Conversely, in some environments, competition promotes a creative tension and drives researchers to innovate.

How COVID Has Changed Science

COVID has turbocharged team science and collaboration, as governments, private companies, universities and more have put competition aside, working together to better understand and treat COVID. Thousands of papers were published, many of them in pre-print servers immediately available to the public, to increase the speed of knowledge dissemination. Thanks to advances in genetics, the virus’s genome was sequenced quickly and made publicly available which enabled the ensuing team science and collaboration.

COVID research has also spurred healthy competition. Multiple vaccines have been developed using multiple strategies to combat COVID. Allowing these various types of vaccines to be developed and tested in tandem has resulted in a diverse array of vaccine options for worldwide use.

Philanthropy’s Impact on Competition and Collaboration

Philanthropy can promote collaboration while retaining elements of competition to drive innovation. There are several examples of funding initiatives that maintain these priorities in a balance that yields field changing results.

  • Aligning Science Against Parkinson’s, a new initiative to support Parkinson’s Disease research, funds teams of scientists from different institutions. Furthermore, at least one lead scientist must be an early career investigator. This pushes new teams to form and can result in new and innovative ideas in the field. However, these awards are highly competitive and requirements ensure that the teams’ proposals are well designed, thorough and original.
  • Allen Institute was founded on the concepts of team, open and big science with a goal of accelerating scientific discovery. To balance these goals, their prize competitions and open call awards maintain the spirit of competition.
  • The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) strives to make open science and data sharing a requirement for all researchers. They fund preprint servers like BioRxiv and MedRxiv to sustain and scale their processes. This promotes collaboration as the community considers what to post and how they participate in the peer review process. At the same time, researchers still have the drive to innovate, publish and participate in the peer review process.

Scientific research and discovery have historically been fueled by both collaboration and competition. In this digital age, the global science community has the benefit of engaging on many levels to solve the most pressing problems of our era. This will require continued collaboration with a healthy dose of competition. Philanthropy can uniquely influence and encourage this balance by consistently maintaining the priorities of open and team science while preserving the flexibility of offering opportunities for valuable competition.