"System change is now inevitable. Either because we do something about it, or because we will be hit by climate change. '...

"We need to develop economic models that are fit for purpose. The current economic frameworks, the ones that dominate our governments, these frameworks... the current economic frameworks, the neoclassical, the market frameworks, can deal with small changes. It can tell you the difference, if a sock company puts up the price of socks, what the demand for socks will be. It cannot tell you about the sorts of system level changes we are talking about here. We would not use an understanding of laminar flow in fluid dynamics to understand turbulent flow. So why is it we are using marginal economics, small incremental change economics, to understand system level changes?"

Sunday, July 8, 2007


I have never seen a single instance of an academic sector job posting that explicitly required project management skills, never mind certification.

This is madness.

I am thinking of getting a PMP cert anyway.

Also madness.

Update: As a Canadian citizen I appear to be eligible for some of these postings at the UKMO; I have (as the Brits would say) half a mind to apply. Farewell tacos, gorditas, enchiladas, beer with fresh lime, margaritas... ?


James Annan said...

While I would certainly agree that the standard of management in general in scientific institutes is frequently woeful, I feel obliged to point out that some institutes (in the UK) explicitly require various training as a condition of promotion to higher-level positions (and people recruited at that level have to do the training too). My institute only requires Japanese language fluency, as far I know, and it certainly shows :-)

Someone I know was once explicitly refused training resources on the grounds that they were only on a short-term (several years...) contract, and not a "lifer", so not worth training!

Certainly go for the training. Personal development is always worthwhile, even if you can't see immediate (or even likely) professional benefits.

Michael Tobis said...

My inclination to get a PMP is silly around here anyway, presuming I don't change my mind yet again and go back into business.

The private sector management experience I have counts for nothing in my scientific career, and the appropriate certification (which is not offerred to people who have no such experience) will also count for nothing under business as ususal. The sum of the number of papers you have published multiplied by the influence of the journal is almost the entire score, and my score is low.

Is this as it should be? Maybe, but among the consequences is that interdisciplinary work almost always fails.

Perhaps it is different elsewhere, but every cross-disciplinary effort I have seen has been either a fiasco, or at best splintered into several small intra-disciplinary projects each of which may stand alone. In the life sciences, I ahve seen a low-status position called "project manager" which seems to amount to an accounting/purchasing agent position.

I would like to understand how to get scientists to think more like engineers, but even engineering is regarded as low status among scientists, never mind management.

David Duff said...

Mr. Tobis, you keep puffing the reputation of engineers and I must assume that you are one yourself. If so, have you heard the one about the computer scientist, the surgeon and the engineer who were forced to follow four blind golfers round a course? I would not wish to push you through your boredom threshold without asking first.

NU said...

Out of curiosity, would you mind sharing which skills in project management and "thinking like an engineer" would most benefit interdisciplinary science projects?

Michael Tobis said...

Good question, nu.

There are many parts to the answer, but let's start at the top.

In an industrial setting, the goal of the project is to maximize the profit of the company.

In science, one would hope that the goal would be to maximize knowledge, but this is hard to define.

(In applied scientific research, it is often possible to identify a goal. I think this is why my complaints are less applicable to medical or engineering research.)

In practice, in pure science collaborations, each investigator is motivated to advance their *own* career. They do that by impressing people in their *own* domain. Accordingly, mathematicians, computer scientists, fluid dynamicists, are each rewarded for new results, and penalized for explaining themselves to each other, never mind the general public.

There is no reward for treading well-trodden ground in service of a larger goal. There is no career path for the person who is willing and able and indeed eager to do so.
(This is the engineering motivation.)

Nor is there a role for someone whose purpose it is to develop and nurture the interdisciplinary communication, to set subgoals, to redirect efforts when certain channels prove fruitless, and to keep the contributing efforts coordinated. (This is the managerial motivation.)

Instead, everyone is constrained by their own perceived success to occupy the cutting edge. Not all projects require all components to be R&D components, and anyone proposing such a project in industry would be flipping burgers the next week. Yet *every* NSF interdisciplinary proposal as far as I know has or pretends to have this structure.

No sensible managerial structure would tolerate this approach in business. Projects need teams, team members need to take on roles, deliverables need metrics, communication and coordination needs to be a fundamental and professional role.

Else, we will continue to dig our little burrows and continue to fail to understand each other.

Michael Tobis said...

David, fire away. If it's too rude, I won't post it. Why ask for permission when you can ask for forgiveness?

James Annan said...


It seems like you are arguing not for better management, but different goals.

I'm not convinced that training of any type is likely to bring about the sort of changes you are talking about. As you say,

There is no reward for treading well-trodden ground in service of a larger goal. There is no career path for the person who is willing and able and indeed eager to do so.

Dano said...

Sheril K at Chris' place sez this too.



Michael Tobis said...

James, maybe so. There are projects that need doing and no mechanisms to do them. Which is why having the competence to fill crucial roles in them if the mechanisms only would exist is madness.

All of this fits in with my motto "stubbornly occupying non-existent niches". I think you've talked me out of this particular fantasy, though.

David Duff said...

Sorry, I am not one of life's great joke tellers as you will judge from the fact that I misdescribed this joke from the off.

Anyway, there was a priest, a surgeon and an engineer playing golf and they were being very badly held up by the foursome in front of them. Tempers were rising when the club secretary came by and they complained to him of the slowness of the four in front. He apologised and explained that the four men were blind and had been given a special dispensation to play once a week.

The priest, instantly repentant, said that he would pray for the men to regain their sight. The surgeon, equally humbled, said he would investigate the possibility of an operation that might recover their sight.

The engineers, paused, thought for a moment and then wondered out loud why they didn't play at night!

NU said...


Your points are well taken. I myself have been discouraged from spending too much time improving algorithms, since academic scientists don't get explicit credit for that kind of work. And I can think of an example where a number of scientists are pursuing uncoordinated individual efforts without any consideration to how effective those efforts as a whole may be at answering the "big question" that supposedly motivates the field.

Michael Tobis said...

Oh, in case there are any angels out there who want to support some important out-of-the-box projects that will never make a profit (bats eyelashes seductively) let me point out that it's the certification I am thinking of getting. I already know the material.

Dano said...

There are projects that need doing and no mechanisms to do them. Which is why having the competence to fill crucial roles in them if the mechanisms only would exist is madness.

Every profession needs this. This lack is part of the human condition. Go for it and ignore the naysayers.



EliRabett said...

Ad in Science for the Director of the World Climate Research Program:

Applicants will have PhD or equivalent in the fields, meteorology, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, polar sciences, hydrology or space science. Over fifteen years experience including international research recognition in climate related studies and global environmental change. Experience in planning and organizing large scientific projects and or management of a scientific institute, preferably with international components. Demonstrated ability in resource mobilization. Excellent knowledge of English and/or French and a good working knowledge of the other.

Go for it guys:)

Michael Tobis said...

hmm... where does it say "slacker" in there?

I do speak French though.

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