Agile science in a small country

I read with interest James Renwick's column in the latest issue of New Zealand Science Review (vol. 68 no. 3) and in particular empathized with the disillusionment of many scientists in both New Zealand and Australia. The outcome that most of the 5500+ scientists polled, while passionate and excited about the scientific research they were doing, were worn down and disappointed by ‘the system’, certainly resonated with me. This was also true of Lesley Hunt’s paper (cited in the column) which I read a few months ago. I would recommend reading that paper to anyone currently feeling trapped in the current New Zealand science system. I found myself saying ‘Yes!’ after every sentence. Such feelings of depression, frustration and disenfranchisement led me more than two years ago to resign from my position at NIWA, which I had held for 15 years, 4 months and 6 days (but wasn’t really counting). I didn’t resign because I had a better job offer elsewhere or even a position somewhere else. I resigned because I realised just how unhappy I was and that I would rather quit science and be unemployed than to continue as I was.

I subsequently decided to establish by own research company and Bodeker Scientific has been up and running since 1 October 2009. I have successfully managed to keep myself alive and the company has now grown to support a total of about 3 FTEs. While it has been, and continues to be, quite the rollercoaster ride and somewhat stressful, that stress has been a different sort of stress to that which I experienced at NIWA which resulted, in part, from the situation where I was assigned great responsibility without being allocated the resources to fulfil that responsibility. Over the past two years, for the first time in a long time, I am really excited about the research we are doing at Bodeker Scientific and feel quite positive about the future, in spite of the economic storm clouds on the horizon and that I am battling a little to find stable funding to support our work. I may be hungry but at least I’m free.

But then, after reading James’ column, I began to wonder: how much of the research being done in New Zealand, and which is so desperately required by New Zealand, could be done by small (<10 people) nimble companies that are highly sensitive and responsive to the needs of their clients? Such companies would be flat, no hierarchy, no managers, no media consultants, no IT department, no legal department. Gaining access to large-scale infrastructure may be a problem, but loose federations of small companies can easily band together and rent/hire such facilities as and when required. Positions in such companies would be fluid and seldom, if ever, permanent. But who wants/needs a permanent position? It’s the 21st  century. Does anyone really want to stagnate, working for the same crowd for a decade? Work life becomes dynamic and exciting. These companies would need to be smart, innovative and adaptive. But being free of an overbearing and burgeoning management structure should allow that to happen. The system as a whole would very quickly become subject to Darwinian pressures. You snooze you lose. Those companies that do not quickly evolve and adapt, will die. How different would the science-scape in New Zealand be compared to the palaeo world of the hulking behemoths that are the CRIs? Perhaps it is time for such a change?

That was a really nice and

That was a really nice and interesting piece of article. But being free of an overbearing and burgeoning management structure should allow that to happen. The system as a whole would very quickly become subject to Darwinian pressures. We must tame the system first. Scam Support OmniTech

Thanks Greg. I think that

Thanks Greg. I think that group research has some analogies to software development. My experience in managing software development projects over a 37 year IT career is that small, focused, agile groups with good people can (almost) always beat the large groups. Give me 4 good programmers and a couple of good support staff and we will be much more productive (by often factors of 10 or more) than much larger groups. In fact the research in software development shows that beyond a relatively small size (around 12-17) the losses involved with adding more people are greater than any benefits gained from additional "man-hours".

Large projects are best broken up into smaller sub-projects that can be assigned to agile teams.

Of course, the analogy is not perfect because in software development the equipment needed for development is often relatively small in terms of capital expenditure and where large resources are required (such as an international network of servers) then these resources can be effectively and reasonably cheaply rented from firms such as Amazon. With this in mind, perhaps some emphasis in scientific research should be given to setting up services that "rent out" access to capital intensive equipment needed for research. But even here, technology is coming to the rescue in many instances with cheap equipment now coming onto the market that is affordable by individuals that previously cost hundreds of thousand or millions of dollars.

Admiration for Your Courage!

Greg, I really enjoyed reading your article. I believe that there are people that will be happy with a stable job in a large oranisation while other people will prefer the challenges of a small dynamyc company. Personally, I prefer the second and I admire your courage in taking the leap. I would love to learn how did you go about starting your own scientific company.

Quick response

Hello Pablo, thanks for your comment on my post. Email me at greg@bodekerscientific.com and we can talk.

Small is not always better

Your question of whether more science could be done by small groups, as opposed to large CRIs, is a good one to ask, if nothing else because it prompts us to consider another approach to NZ ScInc. But I’m not as optimistic as you.

I agree that smaller companies could be more nimble, due to less rigid top-down control and organisational inertia, but in some respects they can be less nimble too. Consider a large research organisation. It typically has ready access to a wider skill base, or the capital to acquire a wider skill base at short notice, so that when new opportunities arise it can adjust accordingly.

And who needs a permanent position? Well, a lot of people would like one, making that career more attractive in the first place. And from a different angle, society benefits greatly from them. If you don’t have to learn new things, you don’t have to waste resources reinventing a wheel. The security of a permanent position allows you to take more risks and be more imaginative with your research, all else being equal. Hence tenured positions at universities. A permanent position doesn’t necessarily equate to stagnancy.

On the Darwinian analogy, evolution also has a some counterarguments. If our scientific talent is the gene pool for our research organisms, the failure of an organisation to secure funding when times are tough may lead to the loss of that talent from the broader community. They may leave science or leave New Zealand. Indeed, large organisations can help keep talent in NZ. They shift scientists’ roles around, storing temporarily unneeded talent like a seed bank. Also, while you equate CRIs to behemoths, we could alternatively equate them to generalist organisms with a large gene pool.

There's some comfort in

There's some comfort in knowing you're not the only one in this position, but it's very disheartening to know that there are such systemic problems in science.
Reading the following: 'Such feelings of depression, frustration and disenfranchisement led me more than two years ago to resign from my position... I didn’t resign because I had a better job offer elsewhere or even a position somewhere else. I resigned because I realised just how unhappy I was and that I would rather quit science and be unemployed than to continue as I was.' rang a bell - I've also just resigned, under the same circumstances.
Speaking with colleagues since I've handed in my notice, I've realised that many of them are experiencing the same problems as I have.

Life on the 'outside'

Thanks for responding to my post. So what is your plan now? Try and find a job elsewhere or try and set up your own company? If the latter, I am happy to share my experience of doing that and how to go about doing that. So far I am very happy with having made the decision that I made. It requires a very big leap into the unknown but looking back, the gulf was not that big.