Competition:Collaboration

Watching and listening to my colleagues over the last few months, I’ve been reflecting on the fine balance between competition and collaboration that everyone has to tread. There is a hugely generous spirit of sharing information in science in order to further knowledge, but it is tempered by the feeling of ‘wanting to be the first to find something out’. I asked some of the ice scientists to tell me why they do what they do. I’m an artist because it actually helps to keep me sane – I find myself sinking into depression if I don’t make or draw for a while. The answers the scientists gave were varied, but some of them struck a chord: ‘I like to feel useful’, ‘Passing on knowledge’, and ‘Being the first to know things … until I publish this knowledge is all mine.’

This tension has much larger ramifications, of course – getting the credit for discovering something is likely to mean you get funding to search for more stuff. However community-minded we may feel, there is always the need for self-preservation, and, like in the arts, with funding hard to come by, this can mean the difference between success or failure; getting a job, or not getting a job.

Similarly, as with arts funding, there is a requirement somehow to know what it is you are going to find out before you find it. Grant applications demand what the results are going to be and why this will be useful. I’m sure this hasn’t changed in hundreds of years – European exploration and mapping of the Arctic was almost entirely funded by nations wanting to find the elusive ‘North West Passage’ (that the Inuit had been travelling across overland for thousands of years), so ships went off in search of it, but often sidetracked to look for things their captains considered more ‘interesting’ while they were at it.

As Lieutenant George De Long, captain of the ‘USS Jeannette’ said in 1879

“It is an impossible thing – for one starting out on an expedition of this kind to say in advance what he is ‘going to do.’ … we go out into a great blank space. If you will be kind enough to keep us in memory while we are gone, we will attempt to tell you ‘what we have done’ on our return, which, I dare say, will be more interesting”

What I have realised is that I nearly always work in collaboration, though my collaborators may be unwitting, (‘No man is an island’, etc etc). I have music on a lot while working – usually classical, often wordless, though I am trying to expand my horizons. I also read voraciously when I get time, and have real and online conversations with friends, which often spark ideas or further trains of thought. Selfishly, I often forget just how much it can mean for someone to say that your work is inspiring, so here is a list (ever increasing and in no particular order) of what has influenced me over the last few months:  

‘Arctic Dreams’ by Barry Lopez

‘Icebergs – Their science and links to Global Change’ by Grant R Bigg

Peter Doig

‘This Cold Heaven’ by Gretel Ehrlich

Hildur Guðnadóttir

Alexander Bayon

Al Swainger

‘Cantus Arcticus’ by Rautavaara