Article in Science / Applied Science
Research Project Management is proposed as a distinct sub-discipline within the profession. The elements that make research projects uniquely challenging for project managers who work on them as well as the skills and qualities they must possess to succeed are explored.

Project Management in the Research Environment

1. Introduction

At a moment in time when many of the industries that have defined or driven the economies of the world are declining or being cited as the sources of some of this world’s ills, leaders are looking toward emerging technologies to replace them. Disruptive innovations can be preceded by decades of research, experimentation and development phases prior to implementation. Biotechnology and information technology were dominant areas of inquiry in the 1980s and 1990s; current interests of researchers also include nanotechnology as well as “green” and “clean tech” disciplines. In the coming years, the results of today’s research will determine the kinds of occupations that will drive the economy belonging to the first, truly post-industrial generation. It will be imperative for project management professionals to work with researchers, scientists, developers, manufacturers, ethicists and ethnographers to facilitate a transition toward an even more knowledge worker-based economy than we are familiar with now.

Project management, as it is generally understood, is the art of planning, organizing and managing the discrete and sometimes disparate pieces that will ultimately contribute toward the completion of a pre-defined whole. A stated beginning and conclusion to each project must be balanced against its scope and the budget by which the task as a whole is constrained. In the end, measurable goals or objectives are met that lend added value to an existing thing – be it a product or an intangible – or which result in an innovation.

Traditional project management can be applied to a great number of different fields. Best recognized among these are construction, manufacturing and information technology. The discipline of project management and its standards can also be applied to new product development and quality initiatives. Projects typically are conducted in rational, goal- or market-driven settings and tend to be linear or formulaic in their execution.

2. Why Research PM is Different

Research, by its definition, is different. If the outcome were predictable, there would be no need to conduct an experiment!

The scientific method, as it is taught in classrooms, demands that observations be made. These, in turn, lead to the formulation of a hypothesis that might explain the phenomenon. The hypothesis can be used to predict other phenomena, all of which can be systematically tested for through experimentation. Finally, the results must be repeatable. If they cannot be duplicated, they are not considered valid.

The scientific method, however, conflicts with the most basic tenets of project management. There is not necessarily a predictable start. When might an interesting specimen be observed? Under what conditions might an anomaly occur? Could the discovery of and subsequent work surrounding Ardipithecus ramidus have been budgeted for a year in advance? There is no predictable end. If Bacillus subtilis doesn’t express the desired protein, the scientist might need to tryother host strains that might do the job.

If this phase reaps the desired reward, then publication and peer review may follow. The results may be validated or the project may be scrapped. Exhausting a grant doesn’t necessarily dictate project termination; it is a “given” that a determined researcher will either apply for an extension or to seek out a new source of funding for the continuation of the work.

In between the start and the end, there is the uncertainty of when – or if – inspiration and serendipity may coincide. The outcome – let alone the output – is dubious.

Research creates or builds on either new knowledge or through disruptive innovation. Research Project Management seeks to facilitate these endeavors while mitigating unjustifiable risk. Yet, to a traditional project management practitioner, Research PM appears to involve either ill-defined or excessively broad scope. Funding can be conditional or its sources unstable. There are variables to contend with at each of the multiple steps throughout the project. Novel tasks, even some requiring a sub-project to invent a device or methodology to test, manipulate or otherwise accomplish the step, can be required. Much of the work is dependent on the kinds of if/then decision trees cited above. The higher levels of uncertainty that – while customary, accepted and even embraced in the scientific setting – would constitute unacceptable risk in most business settings.

It is posited here that Research Project Management is a distinct sub-discipline within the profession. This paper is not a how-to manual, but a proffering of the elements that make research projects uniquely challenging for project managers who work on them as well as the skills and qualities they must possess to succeed.

3. The Culture of Research Teams

In addition to adherence to the scientific method, the researcher may be subject to a number of other constraints not typically associated with a project-oriented environment. A specific discipline may impose unique standards, for example; the dictates, prohibitions or expectations of the institution with which the researcher is affiliated may come into play. These must be treated as any other aspect of “culture” and will not be treated here because they are too numerous and circumstance-dependent. There are, however, a number of cultural considerations that can be observed from venue to venue and team to team.

The goal of research is to continually advance, contribute towards and increase the knowledge base of a select area of interest. Author Hadley Cantril1 wrote of rational inquiry “…the process involved in such inquiry is totally different from the processes involved in the inquiries necessary for solving procedural difficulties. [D]ifficulty is encountered in deciding why we should do one thing or another – or possibly why we should do anything at all.” Once the decision is made to pursue a course of action, though, the researcher will do so, often with single-minded focus. This trait is admirable and necessary to see any effort deemed worth undertaking to fruition. This poses a challenge to the project manager, however, because the scientist will follow scientific protocol (see below) to the exclusion of stated budget, time and risk controls put into place.

Research teams are understandably different from project teams. Researchers are selected on the basis of past accomplishments, successes and skill; but unlike customary project team members, the skills of researchers have been honed in a “publish or perish” world where reputation, status – and even continued employment – are dependent upon demonstrable contributions to the larger community. Therefore, while it is recognized that few, if any, can achieve in a vacuum, there often exists an ambivalence between colleagues who have competing needs for credit and recognition for their accomplishments, as well as maintenance of their positions at respected institutions.

Technology now allows for distributed teams of scientists or researchers to be assembled, potentially representing the best and brightest minds in the nation, if not the world, in their fields. This can mitigate some of the interpersonal friction engendered by frequent and close contact, but can create other challenges. International virtual teams don’t have immigration considerations, but time zones can pose a communications nightmare in which it is always the middle of the night for some member of the team. Belonging to a distributed team means never having to leave one’s own institution; thus, each member may contribute to multiple projects concurrently. However, in a culture where documentation and repeatability are critical, scientists on distributed teams are physically unable to spontaneously gather around the bench to confer or to brainstorm.

The ability to verify findings demands a stringent system of checks and balances not required in many of the other project management environments. The requirement for vigilance and scrutiny was highlighted in 2001, when a Bell Labs researcher named (Jan) Hendrik Schön2, 3 published a momentous paper. In it, he purported to have broken Moore’s Law (the technological capability to inexpensively place on an integrated circuit the number of transistors that permit computing power to double biennially). Observant colleagues reported that a graph in the paper was identical to one Schön had previously published; it was later discovered that Schön had falsified data repeatedly. While Schön’s co-authors had not participated in the fraud, they suffered a loss of prestige when an unprecedented number of papers were retracted by the journals that published them. Thus, to preserve the integrity of their work, researchers adhere to rigorous procedural and ethical guidelines; they continually monitor and confirm one another’s results. The institutions with which they are affiliated are sometimes intensely involved in the process, as well.

4. Processes for Executing Research Project Management

Because the work is different, the facilitation of that work must be tailored to suit the peculiarities of the environment in which it occurs. Divergence from customary project management methodologies and tools must occur to afford a nimble, non-bureaucratic system that can keep pace with an evolving set of circumstances.

As noted earlier, the first step would be to employ the scientific method to define the possible research project and provide a sense of scope. The proposed project must next be assessed against the vision, mission and strategic orientation of the sponsoring institution(s). If the research is inconsistent with these ideals, it should not be undertaken regardless of how intriguing the problem may be. Thereafter, Portny and Austin4 advise: “manage your laboratory the same way you do your science: boldly but methodically”.

4.1 Research Protocol

In place of a project charter, a research protocol should be drafted. A useful resource for preparing one is the PanAm/WHO5 guide cited at the end of this paper. Elements of this protocol should include:

4.1.1 An abstract that contains the hypothesis and research objectives and methods

4.1.2 The statement of the problem– the scientific justification, the aims, objectives and basis of the need for research and its potential contribution to the body of knowledge.

4.1.3 Grounds that support seeking evidence for the central question would be contained under the heading theoretical framework.

4.1.4 Objectives articulating the intellectual activities that the PI will pursue in the course of research. These should be broken out into general and specific sub-categories.

4.1.5 Methodology detailing the design and execution of the study and how the objectives will be met.

4.1.6 The metrics that will be employed as well as means and models for data analysis.

4.1.7 Anticipated resources that will be required to see the research to some logical conclusion.

4.2 Resources

4.2.1 Money

In the corporate environment, project funding comes from reasonably predictable sources. Some portion of the budget is set aside for the purpose or, if the request comes from a client, that party may be asked to demonstrate its commitment to the outcome by funding the effort at least in part. In research, the funding may likewise come from internal or external sources. However, it will typically come with stipulations.

Funding sources – whether the institution with which the investigator is affiliated, a granting agency or an “angel”– are akin to project sponsors, stakeholders or the shareholders of a corporation. In order to justify the funding, the PI must meet milestones, report progress at agreed to intervals and demonstrate value. Unique to the research environment is that, although the researcher may seek and obtain grants, the institution may act as the administrator of the funds. Funds may arrive in one lump or in multiple installments. It is critical to develop a realistic budget as part of the protocol process and adhere to it; there will be a duty to justify expenditures throughout the process.

4.2.2 Equipment/Facilities

Equipment, facilities and expertise are expensive and occasionally in short supply. The researcher may not have a full array of necessary elements at his or her disposal. The project manager needs to be resourceful and employ some out-of-the-box thinking: tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a used TEM microscope may not be available, but perhaps there is a university-affiliated center that would allow outside researchers to use its equipment. Similarly, options to make or barter for all manner of resources rather than purchase can be explored to expedite research, minimize costs and shorten or eliminate learning curves associated with them.

4.2.3 People

Human collateral is the keystone of research and has been discussed under several headings already. It must be reiterated that, while many scientists are very good at project management, it is the Research PM’s primary job to enable them to focus on their work– not the nuts and bolts of administration or managing the personalities on the team.

Recruitment may be a circuitous endeavor – an all-star team might entice sponsors; commitment from the best and brightest may be contingent on the promise of money. An organization’s proprietary considerations may preclude desirable brain-power from contributing to the effort. On the other hand, perhaps “renting expertise” is the best option for at least portions of the project. Increasingly, entire teams may be comprised of geographically far-flung (distributed) members.

While many variables come into play, the extraordinary levels of education, talent and experience required in these roles mean that there is seldom a PMO able to assist with assembling qualified teams. They are largely hand-selected by the PI; the old adage “availability is not a skill” certainly applies in research!

Collaborations demand assessing the benefits, costs and risks as well as issues such as communications that may be faced in piecing together a “dream team”. Throughout the research, the Project Manager will need to neutralize potentially damaging factors by proactively establishing defensible boundaries and harnessing differences when they occur.6

4.2.4 Risk Mitigation

Risk Mitigation is included under the heading “Resources” because failing to mitigate squanders a resource or results in loss. Risk is eradicated to whatever degree possible in most project management disciplines. In fact, “Risk Management Professional” has become a recognized sub-category of project management generally.

Risk is inherent in research, which regularly delves into the unknown. Risk can contribute to unparalleled innovation; however, the risks taken must be calculated ones.

All other risks must still be avoided or mitigated. Use of FMEA (failure modes and effects analysis) can alert researchers in some fields to real or potential design flaws. Interoperability of devices used in the research facility or platform-neutral tools for such mundane tasks as file-sharing and conferencing tools can reduce or eliminate “down time” and frustrations.

4.3 Commencement

Research definitions and plans for implementation should be well-established and included in the protocol developed at the beginning of the process. After the funding has been approved and the team has been assembled is too late to begin what is known in some circles as “forming (constitution), storming (goal-setting) and norming (group and procedural cohesion)” 7.

Prior to the commencement of work, there should be an “on-boarding” session. This meeting seeks to mitigate – if not eliminate – the issues surrounding collaboration by:

4.3.1 Reviewing the protocol, with particular emphasis on the research context and objective.

4.3.2 Defining the “three R’s”: roles, rights and responsibilities of each member of the research team. Codifying these in a document establishes defensible boundaries, the channels of authority for the project and any acceptable departures from stated procedures.

4.3.3 Articulating ethical/legal considerations and how they must be addressed.

4.3.4 Identifying how and when communications will occur.

Work Breakdown Structures and Gantt diagramming are of little value in this environment due to the uncertain nature of the work and the unpredictability of the results. However, upon taking these precautionary steps of defining roles and on-boarding, forming, storming and norming can be followed by performing– the execution phase of the research project7.

The Research Project Manager must balance the “hard” project infrastructure (planning, budgeting, meeting milestones, meting out resources) against the “soft” human processes such as culture and communication8. Plans must be flexible to account for the changes that are certain to come. Management manifested as facilitation accomplishes what Fisher and Fisher9 describe as the “distributed mind”– an environment in which cooperation and a sense of mutual obligation rather than formal authority prevails.

The Research PM maintains “organized chaos”. This entails frequent and transparent communications with the participants and stakeholders, keeping the research and reporting on schedule, continually motivating the team and not allowing personalities to derail the hard-won sense of community. Customary project tracking and assessment against metrics are performed by the Project Manager so that the PI and other researchers may concentrate on project work. In Research PM, however, some responsibilities must be deferred to those who possess the depth of knowledge of the scientific/technical content the Project Manager likely cannot claim.

4.4 Metrics and Reporting

Research Project Management often requires multiple sets of metrics and redundant reporting. The research team will achieve the measures established in its protocol; the institution with which the PI is affiliated may impose metrics and a schedule on which progress is reported and balance sheets are reviewed. Granting organizations will also set expectations.

These distinct needs must be balanced and met by the Research PM. The data need to be contextualized and present the key themes of the research in ways that are logical and relevant to each audience. This is especially important if additional sources of funding or continued sponsorship are sought.

4.5 Closing the Project

Even concluding a research project is handled differently as compared to those managed in more traditional settings. An institution may shut the project down. Time, money or both may have been exhausted. The researchers may conclude that the results they sought cannot be realized or that there was a flaw in the original hypothesis. They may disband voluntarily only to reorganize after an analysis of the outcomes they obtained.

The project result may be entirely other than what was anticipated at the outset. Penicillin, Corning Ware®, the pacemaker and even Coca Cola® were all “mistakes”. Did these projects fail? Technically, yes! What metrics apply under such circumstances? Certainly not the ones that would have been in the original protocol! In these examples, the researchers “failed spectacularly” and their unforeseen outcomes were ultimately branded successes. Continued flexibility, even through the end of the project’s analysis and interpretation phase and final report, can make writing the final chapter as exciting as those leading up to it.

Works Cited

1Psychology, Humanism & Scientific Inquiry: The Selected Essays of Hadley Cantril (1988, page 65), Transaction Books, Rutgers – The State University, New Jersey. Albert H. Cantril, ed.

2 Samuel Reich, E., 2009 The rise and fall of a physics fraudster Physics World (Vol 22, pages 24-29) Institute of Physics

3 The Dark Secret of Hendrick Schon, Science Channel “SciQ”, first aired September 28, 2008

4 Portny, S.E. and Austin, J. 2002, Project Management for Scientists

5 GUIDE FOR WRITING A RESEARCH PROTOCOL, 2000. Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, Washington, DC

6 Bammer, G., Enhancing Research Collaborations, Integration Insights (Number 10), Australian National University

7 Verma, V.K., 1997. Managing the Project Team. The Human Aspects of Project Management, Vol.3. Project Management Institute, Pennsylvania

8 Erno-Kjolhede, E, 2000. Project Management Theory and the Management of Research Projects. Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.

9 Fisher & Fisher, 1998. The Distributed Mind: Achieving High Performance Through the Collective Intelligence of Knowledge Work Teams. Amacom, New York

10C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress, London, John Murray (1958)

Additional Resources

Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, Second Edition. (2002) Burroughs-Wellcome Fund, North Carolina/Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Maryland /moves.html

Holloway, P.J. and Mooney, J.A., 2004. Health Education Journal (Vol 63, No 4: 374-384)

Kashyap, M., 2002. Project Management for Scientists, Part 1: An Overview Burroughs-Wellcome Fund/Howard Hughes Medical Institute Courses in Scientific Management: A Case Study

Susan L Singer, SCPM Identity Verified

About the Author 

Susan L Singer, SCPM
A combination of interests in the sciences, organizational management, policy, emerging practices and new technologies have been woven toget

Recent Content by Susan L Singer, SCPM

Should Non-Profits Be Managed Like Their For-Profit Counterparts?

More backward than most…the words used to describe one non-profit. The author saw common issues arise in various third-sector workplaces, irrespective of the community served. Based on empirical data and discussions among colleagues, an argument is made for managing NFPs more like for-profits.

Made in America: An Idea Whose Time Has Returned

A return to American-based manufacturing is key to full (95%) employment and economic prosperity.

Doing Well By Doing Good

The early months of 2010 were punctuated by events that pointed to the pervasiveness of “bad corporate citizenship”. Organizational leadership has the power to motivate and encourage employees and shape positive corporate cultures that yield positive results.

Latest Ebooks