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.