Great paradoxes in research II: Sharing of Ideas & Resources

The sharing of both ideas and resources is an activity that operates along a fine line in both art and science. I read somewhere, possibly on a forum or in response to a post on someone else’s blog, a proposal that we should eradicate the words ‘artist’ and ‘scientist’, and replace them with the word ‘researcher.’ The more I think and write about these two disciplines, the more overlap, commonalities and less distinction I can see, and the more fitting the words ‘research’ and ‘researcher’ become to the field. Both disciplines seek new insight into how the world works and what it means to be human.

In a practical sense, researchers have an idea, formulate ways to test the idea and to present it to the world. Whether these ideas are presented in a paper, book or exhibition space is largely irrelevant. Scientific conferences serve as platforms for the exchange of new ideas and early experiments: new, unpublished research is presented in the form of posters or short talks for discussion. In recent years, with the increased use of social networking sites and blogs such as this one, conference-goers are being reminded not to share the details of new ideas that they have seen. On the whole, there exists a certain amount of understanding and respect for other people’s work. Whether one group reached comparable conclusions and published their findings earlier than another is really a different matter. Ideas in art are no different and should not be viewed as such or in any way less valuable than those in science. Although it is less common for artists to present early ideas at conferences, new ideas are readily exchanged in social situations and in Open Studio events. To some extent it could be said that even if two artists had the same idea, let’s say to paint a picture of boats on a river estuary, these two paintings will be executed very differently due to differences in their perception of colour, light, and how these are informed by past experiences. The two final paintings will be very different, and each will communicate to the audience something different about the scene and experience of being there. For the last hundred years, perhaps beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, such as the infamous ‘Fountain’ (1917), artists have been making use of manufacturing processes, making the ‘hand’ of the artist less and less apparent. Similarly, a large body of the Artscience or Sciart movement employs laboratory and other scientific techniques such as genetic engineering to produce artworks, for example Eduardo Kac’s ‘GFP Bunny’ (2000). Just as the hand of the scientist is not evident in their experiments or results (scientific investigation aims to be objective and impartial), so too the hand of the artist employing these techniques is absent from their artwork. In these types of work, therefore, it is the idea that is important, valuable and personal above all.

Having said that un-executed, unpublished ideas should be kept as closely guarded secrets, a certain amount of discussion and exchange is almost always of benefit, and is the reason why conferences are so fruitful in terms of collaboration and the progression of research as a whole. Frequently, the mere act of talking about an idea can help shape it into something with more substance, and all the more benefit comes from talking to someone who can provide some real insight into the experimental plan, the literature, or working methods proposed to be used.

Since we are not just talking about paintings of boats, consideration should also be given to the resources required to execute the idea in question. Although a lab can purchase all manner of consumables and derive its own primary cells from mouse tissues or biopsy samples from human patients, often there are particular components or reagents that are required before a new idea can be explored. My PhD supervisor called these types of experiments ‘look-see’ experiments: they are carried out on a hunch, in her definition not paying attention to appropriate controls. If a look-see experiment yields the predicted result, then it will likely pave the way for the next research paper or grant application. But 9 times out of 10, the experiment won’t work as you’d expected, and so it is very difficult to gamble away a few hundred pounds of grant money at a time for a key component of a look-see experiment.

The kinds of valuable reagents required by these types of experiments, in molecular biology at least, are antibodies, plasmids and sometimes chemical compounds such as peptides or drugs. Look-see experiments are not unique to science: my husband currently has four large bins of wax in his studio that he has borrowed from a fellow artist. The expense for him to buy all of these different types of wax would be unjustifiable, yet to have small amounts of someone else’s stock to try a few ideas and to see how they work with his existing materials before choosing to buy any himself is invaluable. Incidently, in this case the lender and the lendee have such different ideas and directions that the issue of losing one’s own ideas to someone else is not of concern.

Plasmids are small pieces of circular, double-stranded DNA. In nature, plasmids are found most commonly in bacteria, and contain genes that are transcribed separately from the chromosomal DNA. Plasmids are readily transferred between different bacterial cells, facilitating the rapid transmission of antibiotic resistance genes, for example, among the population. (Here, without the rapid sharing of genes, the colony would be severely compromised.) In molecular biology, we engineer plasmids to express our gene of interest. Using cell-permeable reagents, we can deliver these plasmids into mammalian cells of our choosing to over-express our protein of interest, or into a special species of bacteria, which we can use to make recombinant proteins.

During my PhD, it was common for my supervisor to get into conversations with important people at conferences and convince them to send us important reagents we required. Alternatively, she would email people she didn’t know and ask them to send her components we required. Likewise, if asked, she was always more than happy to send out reagents to others. There was very much a ‘what goes around, comes around’ attitude. I was a little uncomfortable with this, yet people did send the materials we asked for, and we graciously acknowledged their generous contribution in our publications. This process has now been formalised by Addgene, a non-profit organisation dedicated to making it easier for scientists to share plasmids. They maintain a plasmid repository where researchers register plasmids that they have characterised and used in publications, providing other researchers access to these. This provides a ‘paper trail’ for plasmid use, enabling others to build on the existing research to further characterise the plasmid. Moreover, Addgene provides access to the crucial resources required for those invaluable look-see experiments. Without the ability for research to make these big, off-the-cuff leaps of faith, would the most exciting scientific discoveries ever have been made?

This type of sharing activity, though possibly compromising one’s own ability to monopolise on findings, promotes the collective advancement of our scientific understanding. It doesn’t put up roadblocks or allow the ‘best’ science only to be done by those most able to pay for it. This is not seen by all involved, however, with universities, research institutions and even funding bodies pushing for ‘translational research’ (research that can generate a start-up business and turn a profit) and for registering concepts and reagents as ‘intellectual property’.

pcDNA3-HA-ATRAP plasmid map, the plasmid a generous gift from Dr. Marco Lopez-Ilasaca, without which I would not have been able to carry out much of my PhD research, nor publish my first paper, Garner et al. (2011) Biochem J 439 (1): 97-111.

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