Hard science and soft skills

I saw this article in Nature this morning and it made me very happy.

Hard science: meet soft skills. Please allow me to cite freely from the article, “Leaders wanted”:

Richter [the former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center was of the generation that learned directly from the unfettered clique that built the atomic bomb. The veterans of the Manhattan Project had taken physics out of the university lab and into the big world of politics and quid pro quos. They bequeathed the culture that scientists could do it all for themselves.

An axiom of this culture is that major projects should be led by top scientists, with little input from engineers or, heaven-forbid, managers from business or industry.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the low esteem in which most scientists hold non-scientific training. It is nonetheless an aberration from what happens in other spheres of human activity, from construction to health care.

The article is surprisingly outspoken (to me at least – are there any scientists reading this who recognise themselves in the text?). After some rather casual positive words

…science is still producing exceptional leaders who work their way into powerful positions…

it goes on – now including grant funding agencies who, according to the article,

…can roll along with leadership that is merely competent.

And finally this:

There is a shortage of men or women who can combine the charisma of ‘old-school’ scientific leaders with the bureaucratic skills demanded today. Developing such individuals is a tall order; but efforts to do so must be encouraged. Unless these efforts succeed, it is hard to see how science will build future facilities that are truly remarkable in scope and ambition.

Towards the end, the article mentions organisational structures and efforts such as ESFRI – the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures – and RAMIRI. These are a good first step – but, in addition to this, a cultural change in the way ‘big research’ is organised at the working level is needed. Although very necessary, it is not enough to get together at a high level and discuss the politics of these infrastructures.

And it is not enough that scientists in management positions try to acquire leadership skills by themselves (or, worse, don’t bother to even do this). We scientists-turned-science managers also need to start acknowledging that we can’t possibly know everything after all (however hard we may try) and involve people with professional project management and business know-how in what we do. Then we can figure out how their advice might best be implemented in order to get more, bigger and better science done.

But of course distinguished scientists will always still be needed as figure heads of large facilities, since they lend the necessary umph and can make the scientific case most convincingly. Add some soft skills and a very thick skin to that, and you have the perfect scientific leader.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The original post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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5 Responses to Hard science and soft skills

  1. Frank Norman says:

    Yes, I saw this and thought it was interesting. That combination of brilliance, efficiency and loveability – or the ability to command respect (desperately trying to avoid using “charisma” here!) is amazingly effective. I always wish I had known Peter Medawar, who seems to have been such a man.
    Is it really true that there is a shortage of such people? Today there are so many opportunities for such leaders – more universities, departments and institutes than ever before – I would have thought there must be more of them around than in the past.

  2. steffi suhr says:

    Heh – yes, I do think there is a shortage. As you point out, the demand is great and probably rising – but the attitudes have not kept up with the times. There is still a lot of the old “we know how to do this” (even in the absence of any specific training, experience… or insight) around, at least in my experience.
    To me, one of the (if not the) central points of the article is this:
    This [the fact that scientists think they can do it all] is perhaps unsurprising, given the low esteem in which most scientists hold non-scientific training.
    That’s what we need to work on.
    On a different note: I often feel caught between those two worlds since I did not carry on doing research after my PhD, so all of my ‘professional’ experience has been in science project management (which – if I say so myself – I am good at)… while my heart firmly belongs to science.

  3. Tom Webb says:

    I think this problem spreads much further than leaders of large, flagship projects. Basically, if you have any degree of success in science you will, by default, end up spending less and less time at whatever it was you were good at (the science), and more and more time doing stuff you have no training in, and may or may not have any competence in (general admin, managing research groups / postdocs / students etc.). In my experience, Universities are getting better at offering training (albeit of very varying quality) in some of these ‘soft skills’, but courses are voluntary, and those who (to the objective observer) most need them typically choose not to attend…

  4. steffi suhr says:

    Hey Tom! You’re right of course, there is room for soft skills at universities and in research groups as well. Those two things (management of ‘flagship’ facilities and research groups) have parallels – but the big facilities are just so much more ‘visible’, and there is more at stake… which the article illustrates by referring to ITER.

  5. Tom Webb says:

    I suppose though if more people got exposed to good managers early in their scientific careers, they might absorb some of those skills and be able to display them if ever they’re in a position to run the big projects? Just a thought, but I witness some really awful management skills among really intelligent academics, largely because of the reason you highlight (about the low esteem in which non-scientific training is held), as well as the Peter Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle) that I alluded to above. A scientific culture that valued good management at all levels would benefit all of us, I think.

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