I spend four hours yesterday making a chart. Really.
It was a Gantt chart. For those of you not familiar with a Gantt chart this is what they look like:
According to Wikipedia – source of all modern knowledge – these charts were used in the first world war, designed by Henry Gantt (1910-1915). I am not sure why it took Mr. Gantt four years to design said chart, it is after all a simple creature the chart. Equally, while I am sure that WWI was an organizational nightmare, I am not sure we need to hold a WWI chart up as the pinacle of management organization. First of all there wasn’t much movement in the first world war; just a lot of death and destruction and pointless bloody battles. So the organization must have been largely a static one. Not to mention nobody actually *won* the first world war – in the sense most of us think of winning a war. The German Army collapased. So why did I spend four hours making a (slightly modernized) version of a WWI chart?
Funding agency requirements and a really great administrator who knows what I need to do to meet said funding requirements. (and no I am not being sarcastic – he is great). My first version was rejected – too vague. My second version still, too vague. My third version (I hope) passed the mark.
I think it is good that as academics we have to justify our time, set goals and show that we have an idea of how to organize a research group. This is essential. If someone is going to give you a sum of money to pursue research, that they want to see that you can organize said research in some kind of reasonable way is more than fair. But frankly, using a WWI organizational chart to do this, isn’t the best idea.
Scientific research is hard to put in a chart. First of all, some experiments take more time (or less) to accomplish than you assume they will – and you can’t really predict this. It is like replacing the wallpaper in a Victorian age house. You look at said wall and think, I can strip that in about 3 days, tops. Emboldened with your steamer you set about your work, then you realize that all of the plaster board is falling off. They you realize that the wall was actually patched together by someone in the 1960s with newspaper and glue. 3 day job turns into 3 week job.
This is (often) what happens with scientific research. Looking on paper at a project you say – I can do these experiments in about 3 weeks. Ok, this is not so bad, you probably can get the experiments done in three weeks but you waht you can’t say is I will understand all of the data in exactly 6 months time or I will write a research paper on this subject starting October 5, 2014 at 2 pm. But this is precisely what Henry Gantt is asking me to do. Science doesn’t work like this. It is not a static moving around of munitions but really a dynamic process. You do experiment X then often what you think next is WTF? So you have to go do about 20 more experiments to figure out what your favourite special experiment X (which you just KNEW was going to work) is actually telling you. Or maybe you think you know what the data is telling you but it is not so definitive so you have to do 20 more experiments to really know.
Now this is not to say that scientists have NO idea what is going on. Most of us know what initial experiments to run and techniques that will work in a particular instance – but what you don’t know is what the results are before you run the actual experiment; and often you dont’ get a definitive answer from said experiment.
So while I agree that explaining your work plan to get funded is a great idea, showing some kind of management savvy is essential; can we please get leave the Gantt chart back at the turn of last century where it belongs.