Adding a Gender Dimension to STEM Research


AAEAAQAAAAAAAANkAAAAJGQzZTZkMjA4LTNkZDgtNDYyZC1iMjVlLWU4NjdjNDEyODJlNw Nick Brake – Director Science Impact


Consistently, the quality of research carried out around the world is linked to more than just one element; funding, access to talent, and comprehensive legislative support all factor into cutting-edge research and development. A frontier which touches on all of these issues is that of gender equality, especially in world-leading STEM industries.

More and more, we’re seeing councils and advisory boards respond to calls for parity between the sexes with the inclusion of a gender dimension linked to research excellence. The Horizon 2020 initiative is just one scheme which will put the inclusion of this vital dimension to the fore; results-based outcomes show an improvement of intensity and quality of innovation around the world when it is considered.

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To start, we can look to the direct effect this dimension has on research results. Conclusions which take into account the difference between the sexes is likely to be more valid according to the Irish Research Council, which argues that using labels like ‘user’ in studies fail to face the differences between women and men and that a more complete and accurate conclusion can be made of findings if a gender dimension is included. This is something which can be seen from medical research to the study of economic migrants across the world and translates into more effective outcomes when research is implemented.

Gender inequality at the research level also impacts the type of research that is undertaken; if funding boards are unbalanced then non-conscious bias can enter into key decision making about which projects to fund, according to the Global Research Council, and that at a research team level, hypothesis may be fielded that draw on relevant experience and tackle a universal problem if gender is considered and there is gender parity in researcher numbers.

For those projects and research frameworks which aim to replicate an in vitro finding in the real world, failing to consider a gender dimension will limit the representation of reality and may skew results. This is true especially when considerations are made for the implementation of research methods or the approach a research team will take in order to question a hypothesis.

Meta-surveys that purport to show a cross section of public opinion about an issue, for instance, those which look at the rates of smoking, may suffer bias if gender is not taken into account when setting the parameters for study. When surveys are taken, where, and in what manner they are executed must always take into account how representative the sample is of a general populous, and can fall down if men and women are not treated as equal subjects.

This is an issue which extends beyond the data gathering stage and continues to plague results when the analysis is applied to any data collected; be that from a medical study or one which aims to identify demographic trends. By appreciating the role gender may influence social mobility, income, or labour, research teams are likely to have a better understanding of results on a practical level.

Londa Schiebinger works for Stanford University in the USA and points to prescription drugs taken off the market as an example of how gender dimension is not an issue that can be considered in the abstract, but one which has real-world consequences, especially for research.

Two of those removed between 1997 and 2000 were antihistaminic drugs that had the potential to irreparably damage the regularity of the heartbeat of patients, which may have been avoided had the fact that heart muscle contraction rates differ between men and women. It is a matter of ethics to ensure research activity does not harm patients, and the inherent inclusion of a gender dimension is a step that helps ensure sufficient analysis.

Research is just one aspect of STEM which would benefit from a gender dimensional outlook, with the conversation about the inclusion of women in both academia and the industry extending far beyond appropriate representation on advisory boards, to the minutia of research approaches, the application of findings, and validity of conclusions drawn.

This post was first posted on LinkedIn by Nick Brake Director of Science Impact.

If you want to help advance the debate on gender equality in STEM, are interested in just how the inclusions of a gender dimension could help you research team in the future, or would like to find out more about gender parity in the industry, then visit www.stemgenderequality.com and buy your tickets to the STEM Gender Equality Congress 2017 in Berlin, use discount code ‘HODOS10’ to claim 10% off your tickets.

Ref

Irish Research Council 2016 ‘Annex C) GUIDANCE ON THE SEX-GENDER DIMENSION IN RESEARCH CONTENT’

Science, 2014 ‘Adding Sex-and-Gender Dimensions to Your Research by Tania Rabesandratana’

WIRED 2016 to partner with XPRIZE

This year’s WIRED 2016 congress is shaping up to be another outstanding meeting of the most innovative thinkers on the planet. Taking place on 3-4 November 2016, WIRED will come to life at London’s Tobacco Dock, and gathers the world’s favourite thinkers, makers and doers.

There will be over 50 speakers over the two-day event, live performances, plus the latest technology to experience in the WIRED Test Lab with Telefónica Open Future.

As part of this year’s programme, WIRED2016 is adding a special curated session in partnership with XPRIZE. In addition, exclusive musicians will be selected by SoundCloud.

Speakers joining the international line up for WIRED2016 include:

• David Hornik, Venture Capitalist. Hornik is a VC with August Capital,

investing in the likes of Splunk and Evite. He founded the first VC blog and podcast, and is the creator of The Lobby conferences.

• Andrew McAfee, Best-selling author & principal research scientist,MIT.

McAfee studies how digital tech is changing business, the economy MIT. McAfee studies how digital tech is changing business, the economy and society. He co-authored a book on the subject and writes a blog for the Financial Times.

• Alexander Betts, Director, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

Betts researches the politics and economics of refugees. He is a Betts researches the politics and economics of refugees. He is a professor in forced migration and international affairs at the University of

• Zenia Tata, (XPRIZE Foundation session), Leader of XPRIZE’s global expansion.

A social entrepreneur, Tata is expanding XPRIZE by designing a portfolio of incentive competitions with the aim of addressing challenges in the developing world, focusing on producing immediate impact at scale.

• Anousheh Ansari, (XPRIZE Foundation session), First privately funded female space traveller. 

Ansari’s family funded the first XPRIZE for suborbital flight, launching a new era of private spaceflight. The Iranian-American visited the International Space Station in 2006 and is co-founder of Prodea Systems – an IoT software platform provider.

• Chema Alonso, (Telefónica session), Pioneer in personal data security.

Alonso is chief data officer at Telefónica. He leads the Personal Alonso is chief data officer at Telefónica. He leads the Personal Data Bank team and is exploring how people can take ownership of their personal data.

In the coming weeks, I hope to have some podcasts with key WIRED2016 speakers, stay informed by joining my mailing list.

Click here to find out more and book your place today using code WGB10 to receive a 10% discount.

Will Theresa May be a supporter of Horizon 2020?

UK politics are a little bit difficult to keep up with at the moment. In the space of a few days we’ve gone from having several possible candidates for prime minister to finally having only one. And that person is Theresa May.

Changes in prime minister are carried out incredibly quickly in the UK, we can expect Theresa May will be in the top job in a couple of days. What is uppermost in my mind is what Brexit means for science and research in the UK.

Theresa May isn’t a scientist, unlike Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher originally studied Chemistry  at Oxford. And in actual fact she was reportedly more proud of becoming the first prime minister with a science degree than the first female prime minister.

Margaret Thatcher supported the setup of the IPCC and although cautious of climate change evidence at the time, this was 1988 after all, she supported good scientific research on environmental issues. Her speech to the Royal Society gives you a good overview of this support. 

What can we expect from Theresa May?

She has already stated that Brexit means Brexit, to achieve this, Theresa May has said that she will set up a  team to decide and negotiate what relationship the UK will have with the EU.

But what’s not being talked about is the model for UK research and development post Brexit, but to be honest it didn’t feature much pre Brexit either. This is both a shame and a mistake. European cooperation and coordination in innovation, science and research was one of the great positives for Britain. Also innovation, science and research is one of the great strengths of the UK economy decoupling that from Europe is a huge loss to Europe and to the UK.

The benefit to a free flowing European research community can not be overstated. With no visas to apply for or points system to overcome, top scientific talent can form across borders to tackle some of the most challenging problems we are facing as a society.  The best laboratories can cooperate with universities, industry and small businesses to develop innovative solutions to our global problems.

My worry is that these benefits will be lost in the coming exit negotiations.

Theresa May has already said that article 50 won’t be invoked until the end of 2016. Which means that involvement in Horizon 2020 and funding instruments will continue unchanged until at least the end of 2018.

But we do already have some idea of what Theresa May will be expecting the new relationship to look like. The most concerning thing for Horizon 2020 is that she has already stated that immigration and free movement can’t continue in its current form.

“while the ability to trade with EU member states is vital to our prosperity, there is clearly no mandate for a deal that involves accepting the free movement of people as it has worked hitherto” – Theresa May Leadership speech 

If Theresa May and her new negotiating team are gong to achieve this, they are going to have to accept some trade offs. Although the EU has been vocal in suggesting that the UK can’t have an a la carte access to the single market, a compromise could be restrictions on free movement based on restricted access to the single market. And if the UK restricts free movement then access to Horizon 2020 will most likely be restricted as well.

When Switzerland voted to restrict free movement a renegotiated partial model had to be adopted while the Swiss sought a solution. And even though the Swiss recently voted to ratify a treaty granting workers from Croatia access to the Swiss labour market, it still has several hurdles to go before it is accepted into law. And the EU remains clear, however: only when the Croatia protocol comes into effect can Switzerland regain access to full research funding.

The message to Switzerland has always been clear, no free movement, no Horizon 2020.

The current size of the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020 is also an issue

In a excellent analysis before the referendum Dr Mike Galsworthy and Dr Rob Davidson explored the potential pitfalls of a model similar to Switzerland’s.  The Swiss make a contribution to the Horizon 2020 budget based on  the size of their GDP and population. If the UK were  to buy back in the size of its population and the size of economy may mean that the UK is paying in more than it currently does.

But the UK leads in participation of Horizon 2020 winning more grants than any other country during Horizon 2020 so far. This could also create problems for the UK and other EU members. If the UK was accepted as an associated country in some form, then the leading member in science will no longer have a say in the formation of EU science and research policy.

This isn’t really the best situation for the UK nor the EU, and one that might prompt calls for the UK to have even more restricted access.

An unknown quantity when it comes to science 

Theresa May has a record of voting against measures that prevent climate change and improve the environment you can see the list here. I’m not sure that this is due to a lack of the understanding of the science, but more to do with the financial risk to business and the economy of  climate change policies.  Overall May has been largely silent when it comes to climate change and generally she hasn’t really shown her love or lack thereof of science and research.

The support for a continued and strong UK involvement in Horizon 2020 will come down to  politics and  economics. From an Economic argument in a shrinking UK economy committing to more spending on science makes sense, and could go some way to mitigating the long term effects of brexit.

But the importance of this argument isn’t being made, and it wasn’t made before the referendum. Even more than before we need to be making the economic argument for a continued and unrestricted access to Horizon 2020 for the UK.

Will Theresa May be making that case to the UK and the EU?

 

 

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Wales will probably lose its EU funding #Brexit

David Cameron has come out saying that the UK cannot guarantee Welsh EU funding following the Brexit vote.

Wales is currently in receipt of structural funding for the Valleys and West Wales up to 2020. Of the £1.8bn committed, some 40% has yet to be allocated. There is little hope that this money will continue to be allocated past 2018 unless the UK stays as a full member of the EU.

European Structural Funds in Wales have created 37,000 jobs according to the EU funds in Wales website.

This for me is one of the tragedies of the result of the referendum, EU structural funds are only available to full EU members. Since the objective of these funds is to correct imbalances of economies and social cohesion between European regions.

Even though the UK is a net contributor to the EU, Wales received most of the return EU inward investment since GDP per head is less 75% of the EU average, meaning it was one of the less developed regions. And thus entitled to EU structural funds.

The maths never added up

During the referendum campaign leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies claimed Wales would be better off financially outside the EU.

Mr Davies said: “Wales could be as much as half a billion pounds a year better off if the UK votes to leave the European Union.”

But this is only going to be true if the UK leaves the EU and doesn’t have to then pay to access the European Economic Area. The Think tank Open Europe estimated that the UK would pay 94% of its current costs (£31.4bn annually) if it left the EU, and then joined the EEA under a similar agreement to Norway’s.

It was never going to as easy as changing budget lines, instead of sending that money to the EU it is swapped to the “give to the Welsh” budget heading. Given the impact on the economy and possible UK recession, there might not be the money in the economy to continue the investment programme.

And while the EU will continue to fund projects in Wales up until the UK leaves, it is highly likely that planned investment after 2018 will be cancelled.

Sometimes you never understand what you have until you lose it.

 

#Brexit – should you submit that proposal?

I’ve just had someone ask me,

What’s your opinion on H2020 grants now? Apply anyway or move to Ireland?

So If you are a UK company about to apply for  EU funding or you’ve got a UK partner in your consortium,

what do you do now?

The problem that we are facing  is the uncertainty of the UK’s future access to Horizon 2020. And at the moment we have no idea what that will be. But there are only a few possible outcomes.

We might not actually leave, the referendum is legally non binding, and there are various political forces at play to try to overturn the result, force a general election or have a second referendum based different terms from the EU.

We could become an associated country to Horizon 2020, with the same access and funding rules as other members.

Or we could have limited access because we decide to limit free movement of people in some way.

Or finally we could have no access because a new prime minister will decide that stopping EU migration in the long term is better than the short term economic impact. This is being called a hard Brexit where we cut ties with Europe all together.

Which one of these is most likely at the moment?

That question is very hard to answer with any degree of accuracy, but at the moment based on the economic impact of no access I can’t see that as a viable option. The UK economy is slowing down and the effects of Brexit are obvious for everyone. But if we get a right wing Tory prime minister then anything is possible.

With our other three scenarios we are left with having access in some way. In two of those scenarios it is business as usual with full access. Only in the third scenario do we risk not having access because we limit the free movement of people in some way. We have an example with Switzerland with that outcome, who currently aren’t allowed to coordinate projects and can’t access the popular SME instrument.

What’s my answer to the question?

That depends on  your general acceptance of the risk, rationally we can say that the most likely outcome of any proposal is that you lose, it is a competition after all. You were prepared to accept that risk anyway before Brexit so you should still be prepared to accept that risk now. Nothing has changed.

Also preparing a proposal is generally a good idea because it helps you define a good plan to develop and commercialise your product. This is just good business practice and you should do this if you are serious about developing your idea.

Also the next SME deadlines aren’t until September and October, by that time we will have more of an idea of the UK’s relationship with Europe.

Even though Brexit hasn’t changed your chance of winning, it has changed your chances of getting funded if you win. But the most likely outcome if that we have some form of access, hence it is still a good idea to submit.

As for the moving to Ireland part of the question, considering the tax advantages and no uncertainty around the UK and the EU.

That might be a good idea anyway…🙂

What about my UK consortium partner shall I kick then out as well?

I can see again that people may be emotional about this issue and react by asking their UK partner to leave. Someone on Twitter alleged that this had already happened. But again realistically the UK will most likely stay in Horizon 2020, and if things like coordination is removed from them, then that can always be solved within the consortium at a later date.

Ultimately science and research prides itself on being above politics, scientific collaboration goes on between nations even when political relationships are poor. This should continue, UK research enterprises still have a lot of expertise and knowledge to give to any consortium.

The UK science community should show continued commitment to Horizon 2020, and the EU science community should continue to involve the UK as equal partners in proposals.

 

 

 

 

 

What now for EU research in the UK? #Brexit #H2020

As a British man living in Brussels, I thought I wouldn’t be writing this post. I am definitely shocked that the UK would take this decision.

For me it seemed that both campaigns didn’t understand the value that being part of Europe brings to the UK. A big part of that value for me was the excellent research and innovation that has been funded with EU research money.

In framework programme 7 the UK was second only to Germany in winning proposals, but so far in Horizon 2020 the UK  was in the lead. I think that lead will now be lost and we might move further down the table, thats if we even remain involved in Horizon 2020.

So what happens now and in the future?

For now, nothing, the UK hasn’t yet started the negotiations through Article 50, so any projects  that are already funded or will be awarded funding will still get the money.

There is no doubt that the UK science and research community will still want to access the EU research programmes now and in the future. This means buying back into the programme much as countries like Israel currently does.

But we don’t yet know what the political make up of the UK government will be. Immigration was a big factor in the decision to leave, if the new government is forced to limit EU immigration then who knows what the impact on the research programme will be?

When Switzerland limited mass migration they were suspended from Horizon 2020, the Swiss government then had to implement a national programme to replace the access to the EU. It then went on to negotiate limited access to Horizon 2020, losing the ability to coordinate programmes and access to the SME instrument. On top of all this Switzerland has no say in the development of the research programme and has to accept all funding decisions made in Brussels.

Switzerland still has to make a contribution to Horizon 2020 based on the size of its economy. If the UK were to restrict free movement it would probably restrictions similar if not worse than imposed on Switzerland, and will have to pay handsomely for the privilege.

This also doesn’t take into account the impact of uncertainty that potential UK applicants will have. With the success rate already low, why would you risk an application knowing that funding may be taken away from you or not awarded?

For now, all we can say is this is a dark day for the UK’s science and research sector. Many people will be feeling unsure about their jobs and unsure about their future. The leave campaign didn’t have a plan for the economy after a Brexit, and they definitely don’t have a plan for research.

I’ll be interested to hear your comments and thoughts below?

What next for UK research?

 

How to avoid a crisis in your EU funded project

Get a wedding prenup!

That is in essence, the advice of Elke Rosiers who steps in when your EU project has gotten into problems. In the interview, we discuss the importance of using the proposal development stage to set up your project management environment correctly.

If you want to contact Elke you can email her at elke.rosiers(@)lusackrosiers.com

Interested in support and coaching for your next proposal? Contact me to discuss how I can help you avoid a crisis in your next Horizon 2020 project.

Hiring a grant writer? Beware of no-win-no-fee business models

The no-win-no-fee model is used by big and small companies alike because it is seen as an easy way to sign up a client. This model may seem attractive at first but it has hidden dangers you’ll need to consider.

It is no accident that no-win-no-fee fee based business models for legal services had to be legislated against in the UK. It seemed a good idea at first, but quickly it encouraged bad practices in and around the industry. Any claim no matter how unreasonable was taken on in the hope a settlement will be made.

In the proposal writing industry there are similar effects when this model is used.

Win fee based models aren’t all bad and not all grant writers or consultancies offering them are engaging in bad practices. But if used incorrectly the downside can be one or all of the following,

  • a higher than expected real cost,
  • a lower quality proposal,
  • unethical business practices.

Let me explain how this can occur, sometimes without any malice or intention.

A higher than expected real cost

People outsource proposal writing because it is an expert and time consuming task. Many times the company can’t afford in-house expertise, or there isn’t enough demand to justify a full time bid writer, or the proposal is a one off exercise.

Companies or even individuals that offer proposal writing will need to cover the cost of the proposal development. But quite often the client won’t want to pay these costs right away, because if the proposal loses then the perpective is that the money is wasted (this isn’t true but more on that in another post).

But we seem to forget that the proposal could actually win, and in fact that is the desired outcome. And if the proposal does win, you’ll need to pay the success fee. And I know of companies charging an amount equal to 30% of any grant awarded.

If you have a project that costs €100,000 and your grant covers 70% of the cost, you can expect to receive €70,000 in funding. A 30% win fee would mean a €21,000 bill to the grant writer suddenly your project costs €121,000, many times this extra cost wasn’t considered in cash flow projections.

A lower quality proposal

As a company offering this service you want to make money, which is a reasonable expectation.

How do you make money with no-win-no-fee business models?

Every time a proposal wins you get money in the bank. But since even very well prepared proposals will lose, a couple of unlucky evaluations could mean you are suddenly faced with no income. Thus if you offer this model you must have a pipeline of proposals to cover your costs and risk of a proposal losing.

Seems obvious, a larger pipeline will offer more protection against losing proposals. But the problem is that proposal writing doesn’t scale well.

As a company you’ll want to keep your staff costs per proposal low, so you’ll employ less experienced staff, or give more than one proposal to each writer. And it would seem a really good idea to give more proposals to less experienced lower paid staff.

If we are trying to write two proposals at the same time, obviously the amount of time we spend on each is reduced and so is the quality. This is counter productive, because a lower quality proposal always has a lower chance of winning.

People also tend to get focussed on having a large win pipeline with this model, so they will accept lower quality proposals in the hope that at least one will win.

Much similar to the legal industry when any claim is accepted no matter what the actual credibility of the claim. Sometimes any proposal idea will be accepted, even when the proposal has no chance of winning.

Unethical business practices

Unfortunately there is a practice of hiding the win fee as a cost in the total project to be claimed back from the grant authorities. It will be hidden as an extra margin on project management or admin services. In some cases these services are never delivered based on an unwritten agreements between the grant writer and winner.

This has the effect of reducing the amount of grant that can be spent on actually developing innovative technology. But almost all grants are paid once you’ve spend the money and have provided invoices as proof. Thus win fee is paid by the grant provider. Since grants are funded through tax this is a clear example of waste, and the taxpayer shouldn’t be picking up the bill to develop the proposal in the first place.

What you need to consider when selecting a grant consultant
Paying nothing upfront means that your cost will be hidden elsewhere. You should try to access the best expertise that you can afford, if it is truly zero then find a company that gives a good explanation on why they offer the model, who will be doing the writing work and their level of expertise.My experience with good companies or people that offer this model, is that they will have a good enrollment process and select only high quality proposals.

Paying for the best expertise doesn’t have to be expensive you can access expertise through coaching rather than an external consultancy. But no matter how you access your external expertise make sure you take ownership of the process, don’t just leave it to the external expert to manage.

Taking ownership doesn’t mean you are responsible for completing the work, but it does mean that you are responsible for the quality of the proposal. Make sure you involve the right people in the proposal generation, and if you are using external expertise make sure you remain in control of the process and understand how the proposal will be developed.

Writing grants is an expert task, and it should be, good grant writers can return their investment quickly. But like any good investment you may need to commit for a time before you see a return.

UK innovation funding for high growth SMEs

The UK is second only to the USA with having the best science and best research universities in the world. Investment into research and innovation is one of the ways that we can drive economic growth. It is pretty much a way government can also tackle the big societal challenges that we are facing such as climate change, security,  and an aging population.

How the UK implements funding competitions

The UK follows a sector based approach to funding. These are the four sectors;

  • Manufacturing and materials
  • Infrastructure systems
  • Health and Life Sciences
  • Emerging & Enabling technologies

In the past InnovateUK competitions were technology or application focussed. Now, each year two broad competitions will be run in each sector as well as other specific funding competitions and activities.

Open funding programme

But the approach above doesn’t cope for business-led ideas or concepts, and especially if your idea cuts across different sectors.

The open programme is designed to help small or young innovative UK companies to grow and develop technology.

Open competitions will:

  • enable businesses to find and prove an innovative
    idea from discovery
  • establish market potential through to
    concept feasibility

To be in scope you have to

  • demonstrate innovation leading to novel, new products, processes or services
  • articulate a clear and anticipated growth impact for the business(s) leading to a significant return on investment (ROI)

Proposals that show they are likely to lead to sustainable gains in productivity and/or access to new overseas markets will be given funding priority.

How much can I get?

The competition funds a percentage of your total project costs. How much  percentage you will get funded will depend on the size of your company and the type of research you are carrying out. Companies are grouped into three different sizes and there are four different research types.

Applicant business size Market/fundamental research Feasibility studies Industrial research Experimental development
Micro/small 100% 70% 70% 45%
Medium 100% 60% 60% 35%
Large 100% 50% 50% 25%

To understand what company size you are you’ll need to read this.

Projects may last between 6 and 36 months. Total eligible project costs should range from £25,000 to £1 million depending on the research type. For example all companies get 100% on market research, and the smaller you are the more support you get back.

What is the difference between research types?

Good question, the different definitions are given below (taken directly from InnovateUK).

Fundamental research
This means experimental or theoretical work primarily to gain new knowledge of underlying phenomena and visible facts, without any direct practical application or usage. This type of research is usually undertaken by a research organisation.

Industrial research
This means planned research or critical investigation to gain new knowledge and skills. This should be for the purpose of product development, processes or services that lead to an improvement in existing products, processes or services. It can include the creation of component parts to complex systems and may include prototypes in a laboratory or environment with simulated interfaces to existing systems, particularly for generic technology validation.

Experimental development
This means the acquiring, combining and shaping of existing scientific, technical and other relevant knowledge and skills. This would be to produce plans, arrangements and designs for your products, processes or services. This can include producing drafts, drawings, plans and other documentation as long as they are not intended for commercial use.

Feasibility  and market studies
This means analysis and evaluation of a project’s potential, aimed at supporting the process of decision making. This is achieved by uncovering its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as well as identifying resources needed and the prospects for success. Feasibility studies will usually help businesses decide to work either individually or collaboratively with other industrial or research organisations, before conducting a subsequent larger project.

How to apply

To apply:

If you are interested in talking about UK funding and seeing if your project is a good fit for a UK funding opportunity. I’m happy to give you a free coaching session to help you understand the value and chances of winning funding. Book an enrollment interview by following this link.

 

 

 

How to coordinate an international research team

Working as a coordinator for EU international research projects is probably one of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever undertaken. When I first started, I really wasn’t great at it, and to be honest, that was pretty obvious.

So I spent a long time teaching myself the strategies and tactics you need to coordinate such projects.

Coordination is one of the fundamental dynamics when we consider how to manage and structure our team. So here are the things you need to consider when coordinating an international research team.

What type of task interdependence do you have?

James Thompson was an American sociologist born in 1920, and published organisations in action in 1967. It is pretty much still a classic study of the behavior of complex organisations. Thompson suggested that there are three difference types of task interdependence.

  1. Pooled
  2. Sequential
  3. Reciprocal

The key point is that in your project you may be faced with only one, two or all three interdependencies. How you coordinate each one and the strategies that you’ll use will need to be tailored to each interdependence.

Pooled interdependence – tasks have no relationship to each other

If you have three tasks to organise and they aren’t related to each other, for example arranging a meeting. You can give the task of booking the meeting room to one person, booking the food to another and sending out invites to a third.

It has the lowest coordination overhead of all three interdependencies, your strategy here would be to be clear about requirements on the process and results. For example specifying the room size, only asking certain suppliers, setting the budget for the food, and confirming the list of attendees.

Sequential interdependence – tasks come after each other

Here you can’t start task two until you have finished task one, it is a classic assembly line or waterfall process. Once a team member has written the design specification can the designer start to code, or only after the engine has been put in, can you connect the gearbox.

It has more overhead than pooled interdependence, but your strategy here will be to ensure correct handoff to the next team member, that you have a good plan on how and when this is done. Here you would centralize the coordination through team leaders, making them responsible for the execution of the plan.

Reciprocal interdependence – outputs are inputs and inputs are outputs

Here you have a lot of collaborative and mutual work going on, maybe in a cyclical and iterative fashion. For example, you may have a product already in the market, and you are collecting user feedback, working with developers, pushing out product upgrades, testing and collecting feedback again and so on.

You can probably guess reciprocal interdependence has the greatest coordination overhead. And one of the traps, as a coordinator, we can fall into is trying to centralize coordination and micro manage everything. We will try to plan all meetings and control all deadlines, increasing our overhead even more.

Here you want to adopt a strategy of being the enabler for open communications, independent decision making, and empowering your team members to coordinate directly instead of having to come back to you all the time. Allow the team to come up with solutions on their own and brief you on the alternatives. Then use periodic check-ins to understand the progress of the project, rather than use these meetings alone to coordinate everything.

Other coordination best practices 

Coordination becomes more complex when the team is larger, this is obvious, but I’ve seen EU research teams with more than 20 enterprises involved. Many with more than one person reporting to the coordinator. Try to keep team sizes to between 6 and 10 people.

Clear goals and performance standards are essential. Goals, vision, purpose, roles, and expectations have to be clearly defined and agreed early on. This matters no matter what the type of task interdependence.

Don’t give your most important task to the least committed member in the hope it will make them engage more. It probably won’t, because many times that person isn’t committed because of other demands on their time either personal or professional.

Don’t make everybody do their fair share on tasks, you’ll end up splitting things too thinly. Rather make sure you keep things equal across the whole project. For example, ask team member A to do most the work in one task, and team member B to do most of the work in another task, rather than ensure all team members are contributing equally to each task.

I’ve seen this in many EU research projects where lots of team members are involved in one task. This only leads to more coordination overhead and more efficiency losses overall.

Finally, project management and project coordination are two different roles with different responsibilities. And in international research teams these roles get mixed up and one person ends up trying to do both.

A project manager is responsible for the overall project. A project coordinator implements the project. Thus the project coordinator works with the project manager as his ally. The project manager provides leadership while the coordinator puts the team and process together for the project’s implementation.

The coordinator is there to grease the wheels, make sure things are running smoothly, facilitate communication, assign resources, develop plans and motivate the team members. Many EU research projects would be better managed if a coordinator coordinated rather than try to be a project manager as well.

The complexities of working across enterprises, technologies, and international boundaries puts enough overhead on coordination even before you start to consider task interdependence.

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