Those of you who are scientists and/or manage scientists may be interested in this.

In 1986, American mathematician Richard Hamming gave a now-famous talk at Bell Labs, entitled "You and Your Research." You can read the whole thing here: and lots of other places online.

Those of you in IT probably know Hamming; he was very influential in the early days of computing, as I understand it. I'd never heard of him until a recent mention in University Affairs

Hamming spoke about how to achieve great things and gain recognition in science. I was making a few notes to myself and thought to share with the MT gang. This is not a thorough list, but hopefully it's enough to prompt some discussion.

- work with your office door open; more interruptions, but you accomplish more in the long run
- work on on your field's "important problems"
- become emotionally involved -- commitment & passion
- write books more than articles
- keep reading to be intellectually prepared for ideas when they come to you
- set aside time each week to talk and think only about "great thoughts"
- drop everything to pursue a great idea when one comes up
- learn to sell your ideas (write clearly and well and give good talks, both formal and informal)
- don't let ego get in the way -- conform on the small stuff to get along

Those of you who work with researchers, or who are researchers, what do you think?

tcomeau's picture

I work with astronomers/astrophysicists. None of them are in my branch, because everybody with a science appointment is administratively in a separate Science Division. I have had, and currently have, people with science appointments on my development teams. While I don't manage them, neither does anybody else, and I do manage their work.

Usually they have half their time for their research interests, and half time for "functional" work. Sometimes the functional work is directly related to the research, such as an optical researcher who is working on science instrument characterization. More often, the research is only slightly related, such as a nebula morphology researcher who is working on infrared instrument development. Occasionally the research will be completely unrelated - we have a surprising number of X-ray astronomers working on our optical and infrared observatories.

The focus for their research is getting cited. Citations are everything to people still trying to get tenure. Something between half and three quarters of the tenure review boils down to citations. In order to get cited, you have to get published. Books (which Hamming suggests) almost never get cited, so they aren't "impactful" enough to be good publications. Worse, the delay in getting a book into print means that any cutting-edge research in the book will be obsolete, so it won't be a "quality" publication, either.

Even once you have tenure, much of your reputation as a researcher is about the same notions of "quality" and "impact", and the metric for both still boils down to number of citations.

More significant than working on an "important" problem is working on a controversial problem. Once a problem is understood (or thought to be understood) no matter how important it is, it won't generate citations. Since "dark energy" is the most controversial topic in astrophysics right now, lots of young researchers are working on it. Planet finding is probably a more important problem, but it's not controversial. (At least, not yet.) So relatively few people are working on it. In fact, a handful of teams are responsible for almost all the publications. When Kepler flies next year, some people expect planet finding to get controversial again. We certainly hope so!

One thing that I think has changed since the 80s is the size of the research teams. For the first real science cycle with Hubble, the largest programs had fewer than a dozen investigators. For the last couple of years we've had programs with more than 100 investigators. The COBE science team (which produced last year's Nobel prize winners) had 20-some members. The JWST science team has dozens.

This is partly deliberate: With a limited number of orbits (or nights, for ground-based observatories) available each year, there is great pressure to design the best possible science program and make the most efficient use possible of limited facilities. The solution is to get everybody who might be interested onto one big team. If you want to study Type II Supernovae, you put everybody who has published on Type IIs for the last five years on the team. That gets you about 120 people from dozens of institutions around the world.

Large teams who collaborate well can design programs that take data very carefully, and answer several questions with the same data set. In a sense, they are doing multiple experiments with the same experimental design.

The effect is that being an effective collaborator and communicator on a large team is becoming a key, even essential, skill for investigators.

To lead the big teams, investigators have to be good project managers, and they also have to be able to understand and support other people's science goals, and often understand and get agreement on competing interests.

This is actually harder than ordinary business problems, because there is no "bottom line" you can use to evaluate the value of the competing interests. The whole point of doing the science is that the answer is unknown, and for the hardest problems, there may be no really good approaches. As a team lead, the investigator has to negotiate and facilitate agreement on goals as much as methods.

So a second key skill, particularly for team leads, is the ability to subordinate their own passion and commitment to the overall, often uncertain, goals of the team. They still have to maintain enthusiasm for the project, and also maintain the team's enthusiasm through conflict over goals and methods.

Both of these skills are challenging for some of the older scientists, who came up in an era where teams were small and one person (usually the grant recipient) could be authoritarian. Since they have tenure, they have a job for life, but they are working on smaller (though often important) problems, and have a harder time getting significant access the most recent, most capable observatories.

Only some of the older guys have the problem, though. Several of the largest, most productive teams include very senior scientists in key roles, even where the team is led by somebody younger.

The scientists who have adapted well to the new observatories and new environments also do very well at supporting systems and software engineering. They communicate and collaborate well, they appreciate iterative and collaborative development processes, and they recognize the need to balance competing interests in an uncertain environment.

They can still be arrogant and dismissive. They are very bright people, and they know it. There are very few women (fewer even than a decade ago) but I haven't noticed any significant gender differences. They do respond well to feedback when you put the effects in terms of the science. Some get defensive if you put the effects in terms of their careers. They don't believe I can affect their careers, and frankly they are probably right.

But I sure like working with them.


akinsgre's picture


I reallly enjoyed your first post. While I didn't have a response, it was on my list to do some follow-up reading.


Your response was great! I learned a lot from reading it.

rthibode's picture

Fascinating world, Tom!

Seems the push for citations is key everywhere today.

It's a problem, but how on earth can a committee of colleagues accurately judge the quality of research? Research areas are far too specialized for that to be practical. Using citations sort of makes sense -- the people who cite your work are going to be others working on similar problems, other experts. Unfortunately, they may cite your research in a purely negative way, and that would still count as a citation.

Tom Comeau wrote:
[quote]While I don't manage them, neither does anybody else, and I do manage their work.[/quote]
And there's the reality for most "managers" in academe.

[b]Can someone remind me if there is a 'cast that addresses this situation -- responsibility without authority?[/b]

What about you, Tom? How do you manage people's work without managing the people?

jhack's picture

Very interesting info. Thank you, Tom, for another great post.

R, there are many situations in which one must manage the work of those not reporting to you. Most companies now have cross-functional teams that tackle specific projects. Consulting often requires the ability to get work done by folks who not only don't report to you, but aren't even in the same company, and may have divergent interests.

Fortunately, these arrangements are usually populated by self-motivated folks.

I've found several techniques useful. Find out why they're on the project and what their measures for success are. Align communications and requests to them with their goals. From M-T, I've learned about DiSC, which can help refine those communications even further.

Shared goals are very powerful. When everyone shares the same goals for the project, they can naturally align their efforts without constant direction setting by a manager. Freguent articulation of the goals, and discerning whether folks are in agreement, is essential on more complex projects.

Finally, a plan into which everyone has input and consent can act as a "contract" that binds the person to their work (rather than a person).

Would this work in a academic environment?


rthibode's picture

John, you ask a tough question -- Would this work in an academic environment?

In my department, everyone is quite committed to the same goal, the success of our programs.

However, faculty are very accustomed to working independently (less so in sciences, as Tom's post illustrates). It is very difficult to get them to work [i]together[/i] effectively. Faculty do not keep anything like regular office hours, nor can they be required to do so. Some prefer to work at home, some work in the office but mainly in the evenings or on weekends.

WillDuke's picture

Everyone's taking their cue from the boss. If everyone's missing meetings, I'd put money on the boss missing meetings. If everyone's disorganized, I'd put money on the boss being disorganized. If everyone's very committed to the success of the students, you can bet your bippy the boss is too.

So if you want a remedy, you have to start with the leadership team. You have to help them understand that the best way to help the student is to get this proposal done. The problem might be that the proposal isn't the most important thing to the success of the students. If it's not, well, there ya go.

rthibode's picture

Will, you got it in one.

The boss doesn't necessarily miss meetings, but she is disorganized (and overworked). The boss and several colleagues are the types where commitment to the clients is everything and if one swings by with a crisis and you're on your way to the staff meeting, you just stop everything and deal with the student. Which if fine if the crisis is life-threatening, or something.

We are rarely held accountable for deadlines. Anytime something is late you're told "That's okay, I know how busy you are."

The boss gives the only rewards she has available -- praise -- to everyone, pretty much indiscriminately. I've stopped listening to her years ago. How good can I feel about doing a "great job" when she says the same thing to others who I know aren't doing a great job?

Sorry for the rant. I really do have great relationships with all these people, just no authority. I know there are things I could do better to influence my peers, so I guess I just have to shut up and get on with it.

tcomeau's picture

Tom Comeau wrote:
[quote]While I don't manage them, neither does anybody else, and I do manage their work.[/quote]
What about you, Tom? How do you manage people's work without managing the people?

There's two parts to that answer.

The first part is that I define completion criteria for things people on my team will do, and expect them to meet those criteria. Sometimes that's a deliverable, sometimes it's getting some analysis done, sometimes it is comments on somebody else's work. (Often mine.) Often one of the criteria is a specific date, though not always. In some cases the completion criteria include an event. (The next time happens with the observatory, tell me about .) So the "when" in "who will do what by when" can be a date, or it can be an event or condition.

The second part is that I can't be responsible for something if I don't have some kind of control. As an engineering organization, we don't accept risks, we just identify them for the Mission. (And often suggest a risk management approach.) The Missions manage risk, so if someone assigned to my project demonstrates a tendency to miss completing tasks, then their continued work on the team constitutes a risk. If I can't manage it through ordinary means (schedule adjustment, feedback, maybe coaching, maybe recommitment) then I identify it as a risk to the Mission. Sometimes people don't meet their commitments, and they just don't care, and there is nothing you can do about that.

Quite often the Mission is stuck, and they have to accept the risk in order to get some unique or unusual skill applied to my project. (It turns out very few people understand how to focus segmented mirrors without some kind of in-situ metrology. I think I know most of them now.) This used to be frustrating, because I would see the entire project slipping, at times day-for-day, because one or two people didn't deliver. Now it's kindof amusing, because I get to say "I told you so" on a monthly basis.

The management above me doesn't deal well with many of these kinds of problems, but they are under some bizarre pressures and restrictions. I've learned not to try to "manage up", and I really can only get one more promotion, to Division Head. Above that level (indeed for all but a couple of Divisions) you need to have a PhD in astrophysics and a long publication record, and I'm too old to start. Because of my history here, I'm not optimistic about getting to be Division Head for either of the Divisions I could lead.

M&M would probably suggest I should be looking for something else, but I'm enamored of what I'm doing, and there's nothing like it in the world.

So the bottom line is that I manage work by getting people to agree on who will do what by when, giving feedback based on what's important to the person getting the feedback, coach when I can, and elevate risks to the right level of both responsibility and authority. And deliver as best I can in that environment.


rthibode's picture

Tom Comeau wrote:

[quote]So the bottom line is that I manage work by getting people to agree on who will do what by when, giving feedback based on what's important to the person getting the feedback, coach when I can, and elevate risks to the right level of both responsibility and authority. And deliver as best I can in that environment. [/quote]

All of this works for me, except:

[quote]elevate risks to the right level of both responsibility and authority. [/quote]

In my department, there doesn't seem to be a higher level of responsibility and authority, at least not one that gets much exercise. I'm sure one would kick in if we started setting our offices on fire or something. For the most part, though, it's a very flat organization and the most senior people do not really manage the work or the people under them.

I also have trouble with:

[quote]And deliver as best I can in that environment.[/quote]

I've always had an overblown sense of responsibility, and tend to take things on myself when others can't/won't do them.

What I'm learning from this thread is that managing people's work without authority over the people requires:

- building a joint sense of responsibility with team members
- being willing to let a project fail if the people involved do not contribute as they promised

These are very important realizations for me. Thanks so much for the conversation everyone!

jhack's picture


As for "elevating risks to the right level" you can use the Perry Mason Rule: Follow the money. Who's paying the bills? Who's budget does this come out of? Those folks are typically interested in seeing the dollars are spent wisely.

Would that work?


rthibode's picture


I've written and rewritten my response three times.

The short answer is yes, my bosses care about the budget. And, if I could convince them of a link between our team's behaviour and the budget, I still don't think they would take any action. I believe they think everyone is doing their best under tough conditions. No one is ever pushed to improve. We don't get performance reviews, just lots of praise for how hard we all work. Inefficiency, missed deadlines, and cancelled projects are just "one of those things."

Follow the money: Our department is self-funding (except for space and electricity) and every dollar we spend we also have to raise. I could skip up two levels, or go to some of our donors. Both moves would be self-defeating and make the whole department look bad.

jhack's picture

Wow. Very interesting. Please keep us posted on how things evolve. The challenges you face are quite different from the business world.


antbug1978's picture

Sounds like R. works at my company.
I'm a research chemist in a flat non-communicating company too. Let's see over the last 3 months my Tech. Dir. has spoken to me twice-"Happy Thanksgiving" and "Happy New Year". Seriously, that's it! I got a Christmas greeting at the office party.

So in the meantime
-I try to stay aware of what's going on by talking to his peers (I don't go over his head)
-I send lots of update emails and a few voicemails
-I stay on my list of goals

Oh. I also stay in touch with recruiters!

But is this the typical managment style seen in sience fields? Do any R&D managers have O3's?