Project Management in Scientific Research
Viewing scientific research from the perspective of project management
According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a project is defined as a time-bound process to create a unique product, service or result. The time bound (temporary) character of projects indicates that it should have a well-defined start date and end date. Start date is the point of reference in time where all actions related to initiating, planning, executing and controlling are started. The close date is when the project is either completed or terminated.
From this perspective, scientific research projects typically start with the hypothesis/question discussion and being assigned to carry out the course of the project. It is completed ideally once the results are processed into conclusions and a final report in the form of a journal publication, patent or a thesis chapter. Otherwise, a research project can be terminated once the need for the project no longer exists, if the objectives are not met or in the extreme case of funding termination.
Accordingly, the project nature of scientific research is clarified in four main anchors: (1) temporary (ideally shorter that your position appointment duration), (2) has a definitive starting date, (3) it doesn’t last forever and (4) unique products or findings are required.
Accepting this view is the first step towards the aimed paradigm shift i.e. initiating, planning and running your experiments as both a project manager and a scientist. Applying this definition to research projects is the key to effective and efficient progress.
Research projects by default are aimed towards delivering unique results in the form of new knowledge or application. This is in the heart of the project definition. In this context, it is important to clarify that the uniqueness of a project outcome is not necessarily a scientific breakthrough. A unique outcome would be a result that impacts the field and adds to the knowledge of the scientific community. For example, the realization of perovskite solar cells has been a project that leads to a scientific breakthrough, however, each publication showing a new synthetic route, certain modification or properties characterization are all unique products of their respective projects.
Furthermore, applying the perspective of the temporary and time-bound character of a project to scientific research projects, researchers should realize when to stop and move on to other projects. In such way, scope creep (will be discussed in a dedicated article on scope management) of projects can be eliminated, which would otherwise lead to endless experiments towards satisfying aspects that were not planned for initially. Or potentially persistently pushing towards making things work out in a dead project.
It also essential to understand the difference between portfolios, programs and projects in the context of academic research. Programs are defined as a collection of projects that aim towards realizing an overall objective. As such, a Ph.D. dissertation or a postdoc assignment to utilize graphene as a transparent conducting electrode can be considered as programs that is comprised of various projects such as, optimization of graphene growth (project 1), chemical doping of graphene with molecule X (project 2), chemical doping of graphene with molecule Y (project 3), fabrication of solar cells using graphene (project 4) and so on. Portfolios are a collection of programs, projects or activities to meet a strategic objective. In that context, research managed by principal investigators or centre directors fall into this category, where it involves various programs and projects carried out by various postdocs and students.
Like any other project, managing research projects requires a set of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques are utilized towards meeting the defined requirements and objectives, more specifically to prove/or disprove a hypothesis of a study. Knowledge is the consolidated learning acquired through course work, literature review and understanding of theoretical aspects of the subject matter. Skills are what one typically acquired through experience and practice of performing certain work or analytical process. Tools are the resources available in a research institution such as equipment, materials or software packages. Techniques are the sequence of activities performed using tools by applying the relevant skills and knowledge.
The life cycle of managing research projects comprises a process that falls in 5 main categories that are defined by the PMI as process groups. Namely, these are (1) initiation, (2) planning, (3) execution, (4) monitoring and control and (5) closing. It is very important to realize that these are not discrete categories, as they overlap, and generally occur several times during the project’s life cycle in an iterative manner generally known as progressive elaboration.