Project Management In Science

By | July 13, 2015

Project management can help ensure that a project is completed successfully within the time and resources available. Not all projects are suited to project management, however, and science is particularly vulnerable to having creativity and innovation stifled by too much management. This post looks at what project management is and when it might be appropriate in science and research scenarios.

What is Project Management?

Formal project management grew out of the post-war need for effective management of large-scale engineering, construction and military projects. Rather than the ad-hoc approach previously taken since before the industrial revolution, it was realised that a formal system of project management was necessary. Existing approaches, such as the Gantt chart were combined with techniques such as the critical path method, and the programe evaluation and review technique (PERT) to develop the modern understandind project management.

The simplest, traditional project management involves five sequential stages (sometimes referred to as the waterfall model):

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning and design
  3. Execution and construction
  4. Monitoring and control
  5. Completion

Not all projects will follow exactly this flow. For example a project may need several iterations of design, construction and testing before it is considered complete. To accommodate different project requirements a number of frameworks and methodologies have arisen, such as PRINCE2, and Scrum, which incorporate these fundamental building blocks in different ways.

When Is Project Management Appropriate?

As a creative endeavor, science is vulnerable to over-managment which may stifle high-quality, novel research. It is therefore important to be careful about when to use project management in science and research projects.

Effective project management requires well defined goals and constraints, along with knowledge of the steps and processes required to achieve those goals. Much scientific research, however involves the exploration of novel concepts, and difficult-to-evaluate newly created knowledge. Project management is therefore not always appropraiate in science. There however some situations where it can help.

NASA, for example, uses a technology readiness level scale to asses projects and determine which level of formal project management (if any) is appropriate, and only once a proof of concept stage has been reached, does formal project management become considered. A series of technology readiness levels is unlikely to be appropriate outside of a large research organisation such as NASA, but you can still ask yourself questions about your own projects to help determine if project management might be appropriate.

If you’re not sure if formal project management could be appropriate, as yourself these two questions:

  1. Do we know exactly what the goal or output of the project will be?

  2. Do we know what steps are required to reach this goal?

If the answer to both those questions is yes, then formal project management may be appropriate.

Some Examples

Here are some examples of situations a scientist may find themselves in, and how they stand up to our two questions to determine if project management is a sensible option in each case. The work of a scientist is varied and diverse, so you may often find there is not a clear yes or no answer for the projects you are involved in.

Example 1: Preparing Samples for An Experiment

Let’s say that you have some experiment time scheduled at a research facility in 6 months’ time. You’ve made the type of samples you need several times before, and you know the steps you will need to go through (e.g. material growth and characterisation, fabrication, and testing etc.).

Do we know what the output will be? Yes: We have our design for our sample, and have a specific idea for the quality/specification it will need to have.

Do we know the steps we need to take? Yes: We’ve carried out each of the individual steps before, so have a rough idea of how long each step should take, how many there will be, and what the possible hold-ups are likely to be.

So is this project suitable for project management? Yes – there is a clear target, in a well defined time span, and we are confident that we know the steps needed to complete that goal.

Example 2: Running An Experiment

Having prepared the samples in the above example, we now have 3 days of experiment time in which to get our results.

Do we know what the output will be? No. Beyond our hope that our sample behaves as expected, and we see the scientific result we want, we cannot be sure of a clear, tangible output. After we begin measurements on our sample, it may become apparent that we need to change our objectives and expectations.

Do we know the steps needed to reach our goal? Not really. Whilst we may know how to run the experimental equipment, we may have to alter our approach and methods to respond to the changing goals and objectives as the experiment progresses.

Possibly suitable for formal project management? No – there is no clear goal that we can work towards. We hope that we will see the science that we want to see, but our objectives and techniques may well have to change throughout the experiment.

Example 3: Growing a New Material

We want to grow a crystal of a new material. We know exactly the chemical composition of the material we want to make, and how to use our equipment, but it has not been grown using this technique before.

Do we have a clear goal? Yes – we know exactly what material we want to make, and have a good idea of the quality and other requirements that we are aiming for.

Do we know what steps we need to take? No. Even though we know how to use our equipment, and have a rough idea of the broad strategy we might take, we cannot be sure of exactly what the problem will involve. This is a classic example of creative, novel scientific research.

Possibly suitable for formal project managemeng? No. Although we know what we are aiming for, the stages we will need to get there are not well defined. We do not know what problems we might encounter, and how long each stage may take.

Taking Things Further

If you want to find out more about project management in general, or a specific project management framework, you will find plenty of information available both online and in print.

One book I found useful as a starting point is “Managing Scientists“, which introduces management topics, including project management, from the point of view of a scientist working within a research organisation, and the specific problems this involves.

Image: Luigi Mengato; Some rights reserved