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Seven key skills for managing science [video]

“Management” is a word we often associate with commerce and the business community, but the act of managing is common to most human activity, including academia. While there is a myriad of tools available for learning how to manage business, there are few resources out there which discuss the skills needed to manage academic scientific research.

Scientists are trained with a very specific set of skills that allow them to conduct their research to the highest standards; however, some proficiency in management is needed as a scientist moves from being part of a research team to becoming a research leader to running a large research department.

Below, Ken Peach provides seven key skills needed to manage science effectively.

1. The managerial “we”

We are familiar with the “royal we” meaning “I” (if you are a royal). The managerial “we” is another useful construct, meaning essentially “you”, as in “What I think we should do here is…”; it offers advice, almost an instruction (especially if the “I think” is omitted) but in a way that both empowers and protects – it confers approval and promises support, while making it clear who is responsible for the delivery.

2. Graduate students

Graduate students are the lifeblood of research; they bring enthusiasm, fresh ideas, and seemingly boundless energy to a research project. They are often attracted by an inspiring lecturer who communicates the fascination of the subject and presents its intellectual challenges. Research students need to know not only that the work will be interesting (if challenging) but also that they will be part of a team, and that they will be able to make the contacts that will enable them to progress in their career once they have completed their thesis.

3. Cooperation and competition

Despite the social Darwinians, the reason that Homo sapiens dominate the Earth is because of their ability to balance cooperation with competition. On our own, we can achieve some things but as a member of a team we can achieve much, much more. Cooperation is the means by which we increase the pool of knowledge and hence the advancement of society. Competition is the spur between teams, but taken too far it leads to inefficiency. Learning how to balance competition with collaboration is a key research skill.

4. Team building

Most research is done in small teams – a lead academic, perhaps a couple of colleagues, a few postdocs, engineers, technicians, and graduate students. Even the large experiments (the Manhattan Project, the Human Genome Project, the Large Hadron Collider, etc.) which have thousands of members, are made of large numbers of small teams, working quasi-independently but towards a common goal. The team can only work effectively if all of its members contribute fully and if their contribution is appreciated and acknowledged.

5. The office door

The office door is a barrier between the manager and the managed. The door should be open as much as possible, so that anyone who needs it has access. We are all suspicious of what goes on “behind closed doors”, and this suspicion can be much reduced, if not dispelled, by keeping the door open. Of course, there are some discussions (for example, appraisal reviews) that require privacy, but these occasions should be kept to a minimum. The manager needs to be readily available, to be able to inspire and motivate the members of the unit, and to know them as colleagues.

6. Management by walking about

Much of management is about solving problems: some arise in the research programme, some are personal problems, and some are created by higher management. This gives the busy manager a somewhat skewed view – just one damned problem after another. However, if you walk around, have coffee or lunch with colleagues, you get to hear of the successes. Of course, you also hear some of the grumbles, but this is also useful information. You also need to walk around with your eyes open – does the place look orderly, are all of the safety procedures in place and being followed, is the “buzz” in the laboratory positive, do the research students look happy and engaged, and so on; this information is rarely available in the “annual reports” that most teams are obliged to produce.

7. Research integrity and research ethics

Most academic research these days is publicly funded through competitively-awarded grants or contracts. While there is great pressure to produce results, it remains essential that research is performed to the highest ethical and scientific standards. Scientific fraud not only undermines scientific integrity, but also destroys the careers of the perpetrators when others try to reproduce the results and fail (as they surely will). Minor cases of scientific misconduct may go undetected at times, but it is essential that a strict code of scientific ethics is adopted which includes zero tolerance of such practices. Science without honesty is not science.

Featured image credit: Science and technology by 4832970. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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