[Column] (Un)Healthy rivalry

Columnist Birgit van Driel believes that it is essential that scientists collaborate. But she also argues for healthy rivalry to speed up scientific breakthroughs.

Birgit van Driel: When a technical degree programme suits you, it is not difficult. (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

Rivalry is of all times and is a source of inspiration frequently drawn upon for exciting stories and good movies. Arch rivals can bring out the best – and the worst – in you and stimulate you to expand your boundaries. Arch rivals can give you that last spark of energy, even if you are at the end of your tether. Rivals have existed throughout the history of science. And rivalry may have been a factor in major scientific breakthroughs.

Just think about Isaac Newton and his much less well known rival Robert Hooke without whom Newton may never have figured out gravity. Or about Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, about who the story even circulates that Edison publicly electrocuted animals to create a fear of alternating current (AC), the type of electricity that was promoted by Tesla. This last example makes it clear that rivalry also has a dark side and, apart from breakthroughs, can also lead to unethical behaviour.

In the Netherlands and Europe we are working on a transition to a more open and transparent academic culture. Considering the saying ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’, cooperation is now seen as the key to excellent science and thus the solution for the major scientific challenges that we are facing. However, while cooperation is essential for good science, we should also not underestimate or forget the advantages of competition in this transition. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water. 

Cooperation and openness are not incompatible with competition and rivalry


Last January, Nature wrote about the drop in disruptive publications, the cause of which remains shrouded in mystery. Who knows, it may be linked to a decrease in scientific rivalry… This is why I am looking for the golden middle ground. Can we use the advantages of rivalry in scientific practice without the negative consequences? Cooperation and openness are not incompatible with competition and rivalry. A competition can still be a competition if you are transparent and prioritise ethical behaviour. Rivalry can emerge between two individuals in an ivory tower, or between two teams – just think of the solar challenge (in Dutch) – if the teams collaborate well internally and have a pleasant atmosphere and a good work-life balance. Furthermore, if transfers between Ajax and Feyenoord are possible, then it must also be possible between rival scientific teams at universities. Individual careers should therefore not be hindered by increased rivalry. 

While past outcomes are no guarantee for the future, I would still like to give the example of the search for the Higgs particle which involved a friendly, but very intense rivalry between the research teams at CERN and Fermilab that sped up the process. An added advantage is that ‘The race to find the God particle’ is a compelling perspective to interest a broad public in fundamental physics. 

Another, though less friendly example, is the space race during the Cold War. I certainly do not want to praise wars for speeding up scientific breakthroughs, but I do want make a case for a form of healthy and stimulating rivalry. Much like an honourable duel – such as in the search for the Higgs particle – that is transparent, has rules, and contains the fun element of a competition. I believe that this would lead both to scientific breakthroughs as well as wonderful stories for tomorrow’s history of science.

Birgit van Driel started working as a Policy Officer at Strategic Development in 2021. She returned to TU Delft where she started her studies back in 2006. She’s been affiliated to the Faculties of IDE (first year), AS (bachelor’s) and 3mE (PhD). After earning her PhD, she worked as a Strategy Consultant at Kearney and a Program Officer at NWO-AES.

Columnist Birgit van Driel

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