The Controversial Art of Research Management

Should managers without research training be in charge of academic institutions?

The French agricultural research institute INRA has had a tumultuous summer. The surprise and largely unwelcome nomination of politician Philippe Mauguin as president of INRA has caused a shock wave in the French scientific community. Researchers from INRA and across France took to the Internet this summer using the hashtag @INRAalert to express their discontent. They complained about the parachuting of a politician with no research experience into the institute’s most coveted post. In this article, Fiona Dunlevy investigates for EuroScientific if it is necessary to have a scientist at the head of research organizations or can managers do an equally good or even better job?

The rise of the research director

So, what is a research director? “There is no single definition,” says Jan Andersen, senior executive and research director at Kongens Lyngby Technical University in Denmark. “Usually, it is the person who softens the internal rules of the organization or the rules of the funder and the researcher. Research directors function as a support service for research teams, he explains, helping researchers both obtain funding and meet their administrative obligations to these funders.

In today’s value-for-money society, funders increasingly demand that research expenses be justified. This generates additional reporting requirements, according to John Donovan, president of the European Association of Research Directors and Administrators (EARMA) and director of research at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Ireland. “Principal investigators don’t like administration, so they like us to get rid of it,” says Donovan, “the goal is to make research a smooth and enjoyable experience. “

Andersen agrees the researchers appreciate the help. “If we do a good job, they’re happy to have us,” he says, “Generically they think all administration is a burden. But in reality, when we help them write a successful application, they can see how we take the burden off the researchers. “

Experience matters

Clearly, research managers can be well appreciated by researchers. So why have INRA researchers reacted so strongly to the appointment of an official to the presidency? A major problem is Mauguin’s lack of research experience, explains Patrick Lemaire, senior researcher in developmental biology at CNRS, Montpellier, and spokesperson for the pressure group Sciences en Marche. “Mauguin has been in ministerial offices all his life,” says Lemaire, “he has no connection with the scientific community.

What worries scientists is that the vision [of INRA] comes from the president, according to Lemaire. And it can’t be just an administrative vision, it has to be a scientific vision, ”he says. A related problem is that Mauguin does not hold a doctorate, which means he could be seen as “underqualified by many of his foreign peers,” says Lemaire.

Public accountability

However, running a research organization is not just a matter of science. It’s also about being responsible for science, according to Robert Dingwall, a consulting sociologist and professor at Nottingham Trent University, UK, and author of the Sage Handbook of Research Management. “It’s really about managing politicians, the public, the taxpayers to continue to support work and communicate the value of work,” says Dingwall.

Taxpayers are the ultimate funders of research. And scientists must justify the value of their work, even if the impact is not immediate. “Scientists are not used to championing this cause, while politicians absolutely are,” says Dingwall, explaining that it can be an advantage to have an organization leader “who knows how to talk to other politicians. , speaking to the audience, who knows how to build that kind of story. This is quite crucial in times of austerity. If you want to justify funding for science, you have to be able to advocate.

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The right person for the job

Andersen admits that good scientists don’t necessarily make good leaders. But he also thinks that having a good academic CV is important for the credibility of heads of research organizations, “because you communicate with your peers who have that academic background, and that is part of the job of showing academic excellence. in such a position. “

EARMA’s Donovan agrees, adding that one solution is to have two people run the show. “The research title is obviously best done by a researcher who is familiar with what’s going on and has the credibility of his peers who opens doors,” says Donovan, “But running the business effectively is probably best done. by someone who understands how a business operates efficiently. They will often not be the same person and they will often disagree on the boundary between the two zones.

Dual function

This is exactly how INRA was organized, according to Lemaire, who explains that there was both a president and a director general. “At that time it happened a few times that the president was a scientist and the CEO was from one of the elite engineering schools,” Lemaire says, “but that was considered acceptable because the president of the organization was a scientist. He also adds: “Now that the two functions have been merged for the same person, it is more complicated to have someone who is not a scientist performing both functions.”

Having non-scientists in top positions seems to be the exception, however. “It is very rare for a research organization or a university to be ‘run’ by someone without a doctorate degree,” says Lidia Borrell-Damian, director of research and innovation at the European Association of Universities ( EUA), in Brussels, Belgium, “If yes, it is generally because the organization is ‘two-headed’, which means that there is a person in charge of academic or scientific affairs, normally a well-recognized researcher. , and a “non-academic” person – with or without a doctorate – in charge of the strategic development, management and finances of the organization.

It seems that, with many controversies, context is everything. As research becomes more competitive and funding becomes more responsible, research managers and administrators are showing courage. As to whether the most senior positions in research organizations can or should be occupied by non-scientists, the jury is still out. In the meantime, all eyes will be on INRA and Mauguin …

Featured Image Credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Michael Heiss

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