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Fair and Respectful Collaborations Benefit All


The core issue of this case study is whether two scientific groups, one large, stable, and well funded, the other small, fragile, and slightly funded (but with a very exciting and promising result), can agree, despite the asymmetry in resources and power, to work together for the benefit of both groups and science as a whole. In this scenario, after seeing the results presented by the Montgomery lab grad student, Professor Jones e-mails Montgomery requesting resources developed in his lab. Clearly, a key question that Montgomery would have is, "In return for what?" Rightly, Montgomery is concerned about the future of his student, Smith, as well as his own.

Assuming reasonable ethics and motives for all players here, the best outcome would be for Jones to go to Montgomery's lab, discuss in detail what she sees as the promise of the materials Montgomery has generated, and negotiate in good faith an arrangement whereby in return for access to his materials and knowledge, Jones provides benefits to Montgomery. These could include assistance with additional funding sources, perhaps an additional student or postdoc to work in Montgomery's lab (but funded by Jones), an active scientific collaboration, or access to other technologies or resources that Montgomery, on his own, could not command.

There are two principles here, one immediate and the other longer term. The immediate principle is that the student, Smith, must be protected so that he has a fair opportunity to launch his career; he must be encouraged, perhaps by Montgomery stipulating that he be the first author on the publication of these exciting results. The other principle is that Jones benefits as Montgomery becomes more established. If Montgomery is bright enough to make this discovery, then fostering and supporting him is the best investment to increase the chance that he will make additional significant discoveries.

Although I believe it would be highly unethical for Jones to threaten Montgomery's professional survival by seeking to influence the source of his support, this example also illustrates one of the strengths of American science funding. Montgomery's current grant, although small, comes from a private foundation that was willing to take a chance on him and his ideas. The explosive growth of the biotechnology industry following the 1980 Supreme Court Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision that enabled patent protection for living material illustrates the availability of funding for high-risk, high-payoff science. So even if Jones and Montgomery cannot evolve a collaborative relationship, this need not mean the end of Montgomery's research, although the circumstances would be different from what he presently knows.

Strength and influence imply an obligation to use them responsibly for the betterment of all. The best way to do that, understood by the great teachers from the days of Aristotle onward, is to share knowledge and assistance as freely and generously as possible. "What ye sow, so shall ye reap," and the wider one sows the seeds of knowledge and cooperation, the more widely will benefits result. To a truly remarkable degree, this has been a shared glory and lasting legacy of science, and society has unquestionably enjoyed spectacular benefits across all disciplines. We inherit the benefits of that legacy and the associated obligation to sustain and continue it.