Ensure our excellent scientists are also good leaders

Question:How do we make best use of our science and research strengths?
on 07/07/2016







Being a scientist, whether as tenured faculty at a research university, or leading a team in industry, is at least equal parts leadership and research. While we do a lot to ensure our scientists are trained to 'do science' (ie perform research independently); from graduate programs aimed solely at this goal, to post-doctoral positions meant to further solidify one's skills as an independent researcher, to publications (the 'fruit' of research) being the primary currency in the academic world (or patents in industry), we do virtually nothing to ensure that the scientists who we put into leadership roles are at all qualified as leaders or even have *any* leadership training. 

This is incredibly inefficient! (And of course it also hurts students, staff, and everyone else who has to work under poor leadership.)

The 'doing science' skills (some say talent) are completely wasted when the newly minted tenure track professor doesn't know how to manage their students, how to manage their post-docs, how to ensure staff and students work as an effective team, how to diffuse or even cope with conflict, how to to enable growth and success, or how to even do something 'simple' like budget research expenses for the year (not actually very simple). Whether we like it or not, any scientist leading a team of researchers (be it as a professor with students, post-docs and research associates, or in industry leading a team of professionals) is in a leadership role. And whether we like it or not, their leadership qualities will have a huge impact on the productivity of the team and the quality of work that the team produces.

In industry, steps are often taken to address the deficit in leadership training/skills that most scientists have: scientists who are put in leadership roles often must go through training first, to ensure they at least understand some basic points about their job.

Unfortunately, in the academic hiring process, leadership skills aren't even discussed. And once a young professor is hired, they are offered no leadership courses, workshops, or even a pamphlet to get them going. On top of that, they are instantly buried in administrative and teaching tasks which they have virtually no experience with, and they are left with little time to develop into their role as leaders (or administrators, or teachers). What this means is that the students and staff working under the professor suffer as anyone does when working under poor leadership. Also, for those students who have not worked outside academia, this first major exposure to poor leadership normalizes ineffective (and sometimes damaging) practices, paving the way for the next generation of poor leadership. And there is approximately zero accountability, so the suffering continues ad infinitum.

All that aside, the outcome you are concerned about is this: the research productivity in a poorly-run team is much lower than it could be - because a person who was trained to operate as an independent scientist now has zero time to do science independently but lacks the skills to pass their knowledge on to a team and to get that team working effectively.

I have always wondered how academia continues to miss this glaring flaw in their hiring and training process. In any case, to effect change the incentive structures must be adjusted: this is where the federal government can make a huge impact.

My proposal is that a grant is created to specifically address the lack of leadership training in academia. (Note a similar structure can be created to promote teaching training because academia, in particular the STEM disciplines, has a serious dearth of good teachers, and again no training or accountability). This grant can look like this: A professor can apply for enough money to cover the salary of a staff member to support them: a research associate, lab manager, staff scientist, or administrative assistant (or whatever else) for X years. In those X years, because their work-load is significantly lightened by their new help, they must enrol in and complete Y courses or workshops or training seminars or what have you in leadership (and/or project management, and/or teaching, , etc). 

There are a number of ways to implement something like this, but the main takeaway is two-fold:

  1. The federal government makes it clear that they consider professorships to be leadership roles, thus sparking a much-needed conversation within the academy about the nature of the professor's role and how they (university administrators) can enable success (and hire more effectively)
  2. Professors have an avenue by which they can develop as leaders, thus improving outcomes for everyone involved while increasing research productivity and impact

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