Monday, November 14, 2011

Should cats be herded?

Everyone agrees that you need to herd cattle and sheep. But what about cats?
Cats are best enjoyed and fulfil their purpose if they are left alone and allowed to be what they are.

What is the relevance of this? It is sometimes claimed that academic researchers are like cats. They are fiercely independent and groups of them are very difficult to manage. Hence, books such as Herding Cats: Being advice to aspiring academic and research leaders by Geoff Garrett and Graeme Davies.

I became aware of the existence of the book because Geoff Garrett, who is now Queensland's Chief Scientist, gave the UQ Physics Colloquium on friday. I have not read the book. Afterwards a colleague expressed reservations about the ideas presented, saying, "this is relevant to engineers, not physicists!"

One idea that was presented was the importance of having a "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" which creates team spirit. Although laudable on some level, I am hard pressed to think of examples in science that have been fruitful or that I personally find inspiring. Maybe I am jaded but ones such as "nuclear fusion in our lifetime", "build a quantum computer", "discover a room temperature superconductor", "cheap organic solar cells to save the planet", or "lets make our university number one" just don't seem that achievable via highly managed research teams. 
Furthermore, it seems that most Nobel Prize discoveries did not result from such programs, but rather from curiousity driven research by "independent" research groups. One obvious exception are Nobel Prizes for discoveries in elementary particle physics.
What do you think?


  1. I have always liked cats - maybe because I identify with them. When someone tries to herd me, my first instinct is to spray on their furniture.

  2. ...and I also agree. Any big advance at leaps to my mind involves a tale of one researcher's idea, pursued with tenacity against overwhelming resistance. Unfortunately, in most science groups I've been exposed to, the use of the term "leadership" (more appropriately "management") is usually only used as prelude to an extended leeching. Thatt's not to say that good leaders don't exist... Just that they usually don't refer to themselves with that word. If someone does, I take it as a sign that they are not.

  3. I agree with the spirit of your post. But I'd like to know by what basis you think research funds should be allocated if not in support of some goal. Are you suggesting that grant writing should only have to show the quality of the research to be performed and the topic be an irrelevant consideration as it is strictly chosen at the pleasure of the researcher? I don't intend to sound sarcastic. Maybe that would work.

  4. Tim, Thanks for another good question.
    I am all for setting clear goals; and even for ambitious goals. I just think our goals (both individual and institutional) should be based on cautious realism rather than naive fantasy.
    Research topics do matter.
    Research grants should propose concrete specific projects, but in the end of the day I think the greatest benefits accrue from giving long term support to the best researcher's rather than than people who want to work on the latest sexy topic.

  5. My reading is not that there should be no goal. Rather, that the declaration of "big hairy audacious goals" by professional "content-free" management staff has not been demonstrated to increase the likelihood of promised research outcomes.

  6. The idea that management is, in itself, a specialisation that can be abstracted from its context (i.e. from what it being managed) is a popular but stupid idea. Despite its long practice in business (see e.g. caricatures in "Dilbert" and "The Office"), I have never met anyone not in the "managerial class" who thought it made their job any easier or more efficient. In a scientific context, it is an absolute disaster, for multiple reasons. Here are a few:
    1) as the management becomes more abstracted from context, the managers become less aware of the technical nuances of what they are managing. This leads to "goal inflation" of the sort that is evident above. The management has no idea of what is actually achievable, so they come up with the "hairiest, most audacious goal" they can conceive of. I have heard of multiple cases of this also in business and government work, where promises are made to the client without any appreciation for whether they are achievable. The cases Ross alludes to are evidence that this is already happening in the context of scientific grant-writing.
    2) as the management becomes more abstracted from its context, the "performance metrics" that it imposes on those managed become more ridiculous and intrusive, because they have less and less relevance to the underlying context. Eventually, the relevance vanishes, leading to the phenomenon of "metrics for metrics' sake". This leads to inefficiencies when the time required for the performance metrics exceeds the time required for performance itself.
    3) as the management becomes more abstracted, it also becomes less able to provide meaningful support for the managed. This eventually erodes morale (and thus performance). In the context of Australian science, this erosion is apparently already well underway (see e.g. ).

  7. Seth - I understand your point. However, managing people (a research group, say) really does involve specialized skills - being able to supervise people effectively; realizing what motivates different team members; actually looking at finances and balancing long- and short-term needs; etc. Management can degenerate into Dilbert-esque crap, but there is no doubt that there really is something that we would define as a "good" or "effective" manager.

  8. As usual, I have posted to the blog when I was in a combative mood, only to later decide I had ignored some nuance.... I do agree, in the sense that I have worked with both good and bad managers and I think that there is a "quality" that is characteristic of good management (although I also think it is more subtle than advertised in courses and books, and ultimately can only be achieved with practice). I also agree that managerial skills, like all skills, can be taught and learned (although self-help books are probably not an effective way to do this).

    My problem is really only with management that becomes divorced from context. In the context of grants and funding, I think that large collaborations with audacious goals should be subject to more scrutiny than I perceive is currently fashionable. It is too easy for people, once they join the managerial class, to maintain themselves there - and too frequently is this done at the detriment to those beneath them. I confess that it is hard to axiomatize the rules by which I categorize "good" and "bad" managers, though. One knows it when one sees it.