East meets West (Science)

A couple of weeks ago, in sunny florida at AGBT, recovering from a somewhat too hard evening’s … “discussion” I chatted to someone about the future of sequencing. We ranged across the models of large scale centres vs smaller units; of the never-ending need of bioinformatics and trying to stay on top of everything. “Oh well” my lunch companion continued, “we’re all going to be competing with a billion chinese, so that will solve the informatics problem”. I was reminded about this only this weekend when someone from the Oil and Gas industry asked me about the scientific impact of China, citing the opportunity but also perceived threat to business.

This is a common theme I meet in particular amongst policy people. They cite the growth of the East, in particular China, and the shift “upwards” in the food chain from unskilled manufacturing to skilled, graduate work, as a major “challenge” for the west. And of course, this being a discussion about sequencing and chinese, we have to talk about BGI, where sometimes the somewhat tired stories of thousand bioinformaticians working an old shoe factory of Shenzhen come out.

But I think this a profoundly wrong concern. Although we of course will be changing what we do in the next 5 years this will be far more due to technology and scientific progress than a change in the geographic spread of scientists. Furthermore the rise of Chinese/Indian/Brazilian science is far more an opportunity than a threat.

The first thing to realise is that science is a very international process; it is nearly totally conducted in one language (English, thankfully for those people who have English as a mother tongue). Scientists move between countries regularly, conferences draw in speakers from the world, journals accept publications from any country and collaborations are sparked up between any willing investigator. Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago there was the concept of being a “Nationally” competitive scientist, but this I think has almost completely gone. Being one of the top cod geneticists in Norway, when Norway leads in cod genetics is relevant whether you are “1st” or “20th” in Norway; in contrast, the “leading” cod geneticist from Brazil (if he or she exists!) I presume is not making a big impact (apologies if she/he is and this is not a good analogy). The question is not your national standing, it is your international standing. Every (good) scientist knows this and judges him or herself by this.

This means that scientists are already being “assessed” on a worldwide stage. I am sure that China and India will continue to produce more and more graduates, some brilliant, many very good, and many more “reasonable” graduates; talent in science is fundamentally a flat, even process given the right institutional environment. Indeed there are already brilliant and great Chinese and Indian (and Brazilian, and Russian and South African…) scientists, some of which work in their home countries, and many have moved, as scientists do, elsewhere – just as there are great American scientists in the UK, or great French scientists in the US.

Even if one pro-ratas the number of scientists to the population size, 1.4 billion in China, and 1.1 billion in India, we are already dealing with a worldwide baseline “input” population of 300 million US and 700 million Europeans, so this “just” dilutes out the base 2 fold. You might be scared by that, but a scientist who is trying to be top of his or her game should be less so – each scientist is already competing in this large pool, and usually competing by being a bit different from his or her neighbourgh in how they approach things. And a crude prorata view is not right – firstly there are good Chinese and Indian scientists now, and secondly the rise wont happen overnight.

But even this view is far too pessimistic. Science is not a zero-sum game; aspects of it look like a zero sum game (in particular the grant funding process, in which quite explicitly the amount of money is divided up amongst participating scientists, with some getting zero) but the way science works overwhelmingly favours the scientists who work collaborative with other groups. The ideas that come out from this, from publications through to patents are far better for the joint work than any small loss in relative competitiveness of having a big pool that you are ranked in.

The thought experiment is to imagine that there was an information firewall between the US and Europe over the last fifty years. What would have happened? Well – probably pretty much roughly the same scientists would have been funded (all things being equal), and in many cases a similar set of discoveries probably made – but unequally over time, and so for the cases where one needed to discover both A and B to work out C, one would have to wait longer in the separated scenario than the joint. In the worst case working out C was not an “inevitable” part of discovery but rather needed a rather unique set of people in a unique environment – some meeting, or a workshop or a bar, or an airport lounge (all of which are places I’ve struct up lasting collaborations). These would never have been realised. Some – perhaps most – of these discoveries would have been the everyday part of science; things which scientists make progress on but don’t make an impact outside a specific field. But, occassionally, the missing discovery would have been profound, or perhaps more worryingly, the critical bit before a profound discovery. Who knows what it could have been – the development of monoclonal antibodies? The development of Sanger style capillary sequencing? Or of a 2-D surface sequencing chemistry? Or for full bone marrow transplants for leukemia? Or of Oncogenes such as RAS? In each of these cases, the scientific progress worldwide weaved between US and Europe, and the output of the joint system is far, far higher than the sum of the two.

Now imagine if we don’t exchange information with China/Brazil/Russia. We will be missing a huge opportunity in this synergy. Of course it is fair and sensible for this opportunity (and so the results of this synergy) to be shared equally – from the fjords in Norwary through to Cerrado of Brazil to the plains of the US mid West and the mountains in China – it should be shared equally. This is not a hard thing to do in Science (it is more complex in the tangled world of business with IP, Trademarks and other things) as for the most part the “rule” is to share (on publication) what you know. You might claim that these countries aim to more consume and parasitise than to contribute, but that’s not how science works – a passive, consuming mode means you are always 6 months behind the real work, and almost always incapable of exploiting the work for your own discoveries. Science is an open process, and works in the open.

So, critically, as scientists we should not fear the rise of China, India and Brazil. For every discovery made by a Chinese group, there will be 3 more discoveries made in collaboration with Chinese groups; for the developments made in Brazil based on current science they will return the favour in 3 or 5 years when we read their papers. Indian scientists visiting Europe will both learn from us but soon enough we will also learn from them. There is too much not too little to learn about in this world, and we need more brains on the problems, not less.

We should embrace it, enjoy it, and focus (as ever) on doing world-leading science.

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