Admin burden is part of the job

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Adam James voices a common frustration of senior scientists regarding their administrative burden (Nature 475, 257; 2011). This viewpoint presumes a narrow definition of scientific practice and a rigid dichotomy between administrative and research tasks. Scientists should view administration as part of the research process, rather than eschewing it.

Scientific administration is a means of articulating science beyond the lab and is best performed by senior scientists with a wide-ranging knowledge of science and its contexts. It demands a sound knowledge of the science being practised, and improves as research networks expand. It helps to implement science at the level of the individual experiment as well as the discipline.

An enormous administrative effort went into institutionalizing molecular biology (N. C. Mullins Minerva 10, 5182; 1972). And as long ago as 1839, Charles Darwin had to organize the logistics of his lengthy voyage on HMS Beagle and categorize his samples.

Science confers considerable pressures on its practitioners. Entrants to the profession would do well to recognize that managing these pressures entails balancing research and administration, not separating them.

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  1. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, Santa Barbara, California, and Arizona State University, Tempe, USA.

    • John N. Parker
  2. University of Vienna, Austria

    • Niki Vermeulen
  3. Maastricht University, and Radboud University, the Netherlands.

    • Bart Penders

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  1. Report this comment #25601

    Paul Kruger said:

    Seriously? Adam spoke never a truer word and from his viewpoint as a postgrad student missed quite a few more! Whilst I appreciate that some administrative tasks are a necessary component of enabling research... the total bureaucratisation of it can only ever strangle it! Oh well, I can only presume these champions are administrators whose very existence is parasitically dependent upon it!

  2. Report this comment #25606

    Oliver Rauhut said:

    Although I do agree that some administration might be necessary, the level of bureaucracy involved in modern science is a waste of research potential. Apart from the considerable time loss for the task that the researcher has really been trained for, I often wonder, given that the time of a researcher might be paid at something like 50 – 80 ? per hour, if not more money is being wasted by tasks such as writing reports and detailed accounting for any cent spent in projects etc. than would be wasted by abuse of a more relaxed system by a few individuals. There is a very interesting short story by Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard from 1948 ("The Mark Gable Foundation"), in which the hero is being asked how he would try to slow down scientific progress. His reply is a very accurate description of our modern research reality...

  3. Report this comment #25609

    Bart Penders said:

    @Paul Kruger:
    James? commentary points out the high pressure under which scientists work, especially those higher up the ladder. However, that scientific seniority imparts diverse responsibilities is nothing new, as is apparent in history of science. Science is a professional activity, and like any other, confers considerable cross-pressures on its practitioners. We feel that pressure too. Managing this pressure requires not separating, but rather correctly balancing research and administration (Hackett 2005). Very importantly, the relative proportion of these activities will shift over the career of the individual scientist and the life course of the research teams they lead.

    In our view, effective administration demands a deep knowledge of the science being practiced. Relinquishing administrative tasks also means relinquishing control over the development of research lines, agenda?s and goals. Furthermore, the ability to properly administrate research grows as one?s experience and research networks expand. Administrative work is best performed by senior scientists with a wide-ranging knowledge of science and its contexts. This makes science possible, at the level of the individual experiment as well as the discipline.

    So ? it is not about more and more bureaucracy but about the ability to help science forward on two fronts: the research front and the administrative front. Single decisions made in NSF or ERC committees can help entire disciplines move forward as much (or maybe more) than the right series of experiments.

    Hackett, EJ (2005). Social Studies of Science 35 (5): 787-826.

  4. Report this comment #25709

    Wayne Thogmartin said:

    Let's not confuse the administration of science with the bureaucritization of science.

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