A colleague asked me to write about a recent article in the National Post, on the topic of research integrity and the responsible conduct of research. Not being a researcher or a doctor, my opinions and experience are limited to the field in which I work – academic research in various -omics, dipping a toe into translational research in healthcare – and my role therein, as project manager. That role has allowed me to interact with researchers in many areas, as well as with many professors, doctors, institutions, funders, students, contractors and other managers and administrators. And so, what do I think about researchers caught out like the ones profiled above?
First of all, and not in any way to be considered an excuse, the research environment is cutthroat, a pressure cooker, a boiler room: the requirement to get funding and more funding in an increasingly funding-poor environment (don’t get me started on co-funding); the pressure to get data and publications out, generate patents, start companies; the responsibility for staff and facilities. Trying to do good and thoughtful science amidst the noise and chaos.
That science is what they signed up for. Using their brains that are uniquely wired (I mean that in the nicest way) for experimental design, attention to detail, intuition and hypothesis, not financial variance explanations and employee attendance management and contract language about liability and insurance. Yes, there are some exceptions – some excellent scientists who also happen to be good administrators or managers. But I think even those ones have developed management skills because they had to, not because they wanted to, and if they could use their time 100% for research they most likely would.
In today’s world, research is no longer just about science and finding answers. It is also about management and fiscal accountability. The main reason for that is the requirement to be accountable for the public (government and philanthropic) dollars entrusted to researchers and institutions for research; as a donor and a taxpayer, this does make sense to me, as I don’t want to see dollars for public goods being blatantly wasted. (Aside: What the funds support – science or art or other public goods – would not be waste, even if I don’t like or understand the purpose. How projects are selected and funded, through peer review or popularity or other arcane mechanism – perhaps a topic for another time.)
A reason for the increased and increasing scrutiny and accountability is the folks who blatantly waste it. In addition to improper spending, wasting resources in science includes publishing data that is falsified or tainted or in any way not wholly reliable. This is perhaps the worst kind of waste, not only because the funding for that research cannot be recovered (it can’t) but because science functions like a collective, each researcher building on the work that came before them. Subsequent work that may have been excellent is also wasted when it builds on specious data, and so the knock-on effects of fake data or misspent funds (which can call into question the research results, regardless of their soundness) are highly penetrant.
So, what does all this have to do with the role of the project manager? Plenty! The project manager can – and good ones do – enable the project and leaders to meet the requirements of governance, accountability and sound management, while freeing their time and brains to do what they are supposed to do – science. More significantly in this context, they can serve, in a way, as the conscience of the project: asking for justifications and documentation for expenses to compare to funding rules and the project budget; monitoring project activities and redirecting resources back on track as required; tracking and renewing permits and approvals, such as ethics and safety; and facilitating changes so that all stakeholder expectations and requirements are considered and met. You know, management stuff.
This role can sometimes influence the scientific work, too, not by interpreting data or designing experiments, but by analysis of that work through the lens of project management – scope, time, cost, quality and the rest.
Project management and the responsible conduct of research is not about saying yes-or-no to project activities – it can look like that sometimes, but it is more subtle and involved than that. It’s about fully enabling the project to be successful – facilitating the best work possible, with sufficient controls to mitigate the pressure that can lead to fraud or waste or both. While much of the emphasis tends to be on the oversight element, there is an equal measure of facilitation – finding ways for those exciting scientific activities and discoveries to happen within the projects and funding. That facilitation is just as much a part of responsible conduct – the responsibility to contribute to making the best stuff happen, along side the responsibility to mitigate the bad stuff from happening.
Research today must also have a purpose. Commercialization, return on investment, marketability – these are all terms that can seem out of place in the realm of science, but are very much a part of current public funding. Where the answer to “Why?” used to be “to find out”, research now requires an ultimate function, preferably a product that can be sold or an investor who would be interested. This is certainly a desirable outcome when funding of science is presented as an investment, but it is antithetical to the purpose of scientific research, especially if it becomes the driver of the work, which is at it’s core about uncertainty – asking questions we don’t know the answers to and then doing the work to find the answers. By requiring certainty from the start – prioritizing funding and support for work with less risk and/or work where the buyer is already on the line – research and researchers can become blinkered to see only work and results that align with that. This is very much to the detriment of science, where there is nearly as much real value in a failed experiment (which can confirm that your approach or hypothesis is incorrect, an important thing to know) as a successful one (which still requires validation through replication and peer review). Researchers that are immersed in the research-for-commercialization stream can be pressured enormously to “make it work”, potentially resulting in this kind of thing.
I have no knowledge of the circumstances of any of these researchers – whether their alleged misconduct was the result of poor management, a pressured environment, blatant malfeasance, or some combination of these. Mistakes happen, people are sometimes bad (lazy, arrogant, greedy), and so waste, fraud and misconduct are always a risk – this is true in any environment. Rules that get put in place in response to fraudulent researchers don’t punish the bad ones – they will figure out ways to be bad no matter what rules are in place. The good ones – the vast majority that are trying to be responsible and “get stuff done” (a quote from one the PIs I work with) – are the ones who pay, through decreased freedom to pursue scientific questions, increased administrative burden, and a minefield of checks-and-balances that can make a honest mistake look like a criminal caper.
I’m very confident that the involvement of a competent, ethical, responsible project manager could have mitigated the risk and waste in these cases; indeed, I see everyday how the work of dedicated project managers both enable and protect researchers, funders and institutions to get stuff done, keeping everyone on the straight-and-narrow with a minimum of fuss. More effort spent on facilitating responsible conduct through good management could reduce the efforts required in trying to catch and punish the bad actors, and the subsequent backlash against the good ones. Good management can also make more good research happen, which is the reason why most of us do this in the first place.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.