A role for nationalism in science?

we're #1One of the rewarding things about being a scientist is the opportunity to connect and even collaborate with other scientists around the world., but at the same time there is nationalism in science too.  Some nations, perhaps most of them, and some scientists feel a sense of competition against others at least some of the time.

In fact science is very competitive whether it is the colleague just down the hall in some instances or somewhere else on the same campus, same city, state, or country. But when competition in science pits one country against another, things can go to a whole other level. In times of war or even in peace but when countries are adversarial there might be good reasons for science to be woven into a sense of nationalism or at least national self-preservation. Who in American for instance would have wanted Germany to make an atomic bomb first?

Today in most countries we are not openly at war with other countries, but there are still nation-focused threads to science. For instance, in the stem cell field’s area focused on clinical translation there is a growing narrative thread that America must be more competitive with Japan or risk falling behind.

From talking to some colleagues in Japan they likewise have indicated a sense in Japan of wanting to be the #1 leader in stem cells. China is also very competitive on the stem cell front. The UK wants to lead the world it seems in certain reproductive technologies such as 3-person IVF and in other ways including certain areas of stem cell work. Is this kind of competition based on national identity healthy? Toxic? More complicated than such binary ways of thinking?

Does it matter than Japan has a strong and dominant IP position over IPS cells, while arguably many companies in the US do not? Or that pharma companies in Japan recently bought a few notable stem cell biotechs? Does it make a difference to the world that the US is poised to have almost complete control of the IP on CRISPR?

At the same time we need to also keep in mind that there are thousands of collaborations going on between scientists in these and countless other countries too. What if these collaborating scientists’ countries are from a broader perspective fierce competitors with each other? Do individual scientists need to think about that? Worry about it? Embrace it?

I believe collaboration makes science better and it should transcend national boundaries so I’m not a big fan of nationalism in science. What do you think?