Cooperation among scientific laboratories of similar profiles usually involves joint research, exchange of human resources and knowledge, and subcontracting one another for experimental or theoretical work. Mutual openness to collaboration helps both the participating laboratories and science in general, according to Anna Artyushina, researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies of the European University in St. Petersburg and postgraduate student at the Higher School of Economics. Her dissertation for a Candidate of Sciences degree entitled 'Networking in the Context of Competition for Resources, Illustrated by the Example of Molecular Biology Laboratories in Russia and the U.S.', defended at the HSE, provides a detailed overview of the lives of two similar research teams separated by an ocean. Artyushina also examined changes in the researchers' work styles since they have moved from Russia to the U.S.
She examined the cases of the Biosystems Laboratory of the RAS Komarov Botanical Institute in St. Petersburg and a molecular biology laboratory (Severinov Laboratory) at Rutgers University, the largest university in New Jersey, U.S., where the research team is made up of former graduates, postgraduate students, and former researchers of biology departments at major Russian universities, such as the Lomonosov Moscow State University, who have moved to the U.S. The two laboratories are similar not only in their research focus, but also in terms of when they were established (early 2000s) and the age of their directors (around 50).
The research data was collected thorough observing the operations of the laboratory, interviewing staff, and studying reports, publications, CVs, and experimental records.
According to Artyushina, both laboratories are open to cooperation with their competitors, since working alone could hinder their access to vital resources, such as equipment, materials, knowledge, skills etc.
Science laboratories which tend to keep their doors closed frequently have difficulties with accessing resources, and their employees are often paid less and have fewer training opportunities (even though some private labs are quite wealthy). Teams refusing to cooperate face the risk of losing their staff and place their younger members at a disadvantage by denying them opportunities for networking with other researchers.
Both laboratories examined in the study are centered around their leaders who not only direct the research, but also raise resources for the laboratory. Both teams actively publish academic papers on their findings. But the similarities between the two laboratories end there.
The St. Petersburg laboratory has no shortage of expertise, but often lacks other types of resources, particularly funding, Artyushina notes. This often causes delays with completion of research projects, and some of the laboratory staff are forced to take up jobs on the side to top up their salary.
The laboratory often shares resources with other teams (e.g. by using another lab's equipment) and borrows reagents and other supplies from its partners. Such cooperation is necessary, as it compensates for the shortage of certain types of materials.
The spirit of competition is much stronger in the laboratory at Rutgers University. Their scarcest resource is expertise, and they fill the gaps by training their own staff or by hiring experts from other laboratories. Exchange of expertise for them is a key area of cooperation, while sharing lab equipment is fairly rare.
However, cooperation does not prevent academic competition with other teams. "Open competition for funding is forcing the researchers to work fast and to keep an eye on competitors at all times," notes Artyushina. “If the lab fails to publish a paper before its competitors, it will lose grants."
Perhaps partly for the same reason the U.S. laboratory, unlike its Russian counterpart, is reluctant to share its infrastructure, even though sometimes they have to share certain parts of their infrastructure with other teams to maintain partnerships.
Generally speaking, each new research project in the U.S. laboratory develops a new network of resources and participants. In addition to this, younger researchers, as opposed to their older colleagues, are less attached to a particular laboratory and instead work to develop their careers so they may eventually join an even stronger research team or have a laboratory of their own.
Despite internal differences and competition with similar laboratories, collective production of knowledge has emerged as a general trend in recent years.
The increasingly widespread phenomenon of wiki science enables collective knowledge generation. In biology, this trend is quite strong. Scientists in bioinformatics, for example, are working collectively to improve communication software and to develop codes of conduct for wiki users, Artuyshina notes.
This focus on online cooperation illustrates the overall trend towards cooperation in science, with laboratories sharing knowledge for better results; in this context, both competition and cooperation can be considered part of the knowledge generation process, Artyushina concludes.