October 30, 2012

Lessons learned at UWaterloo (2nd part): research organization

Here is the second post about my experience at University of Waterloo. After the ode to the co-operation education program, here is another positive observation related to research organization. All in one, I have the feeling that the time spent in meetings by researchers in North-America is four times less than their European counterparts. I wish statistics could support this claim. Why so? I identified at least two explanations.

Firstly the structures fundamentally differ between American and European research institutions. It might sound like a caricature, but Americans promote individual successes while Europeans build large corporations. A research department in an American university is an aggregation of independent researchers, who manage their own team of students and research fellows with their own budget, and who develop their own line of research. In Europe, senior researchers should gather into so-called research teams, which are expectedly consistent. European teams should define a strategy, share budgets and generate activity reports to justify they still deserve to exist. They are regularly challenged by numerous "administrative research managers", who are no longer researchers, but whose job is to "organize". Obviously, I think that the model where a department is like an incubator of entrepreneurial researchers is the right model. American researchers focus on their team, spend time on their own activities and are committed to succeed in academy by any mean. European researchers waste their time in meetings and in bureaucratic activities. Furthermore, the former model enables paradoxically better collaborations among researchers because these spontaneous collaborations are not based on any explicit agreement.

Secondly, research funding target individuals, not collaboration. Europe is crazy about "calls for collaborative projects". Our beloved European funders seem convinced that the only way to do research is to make people work together on a well-defined topic. European companies interested in academic research contribute to research through collaboration in these projects. I will again exaggerate a bit, but collaborative projects are not the norm in America. Researchers get small amounts of money from companies through direct grants, which favor transient, short, focused cooperation. And they also receive individual grants from their public funding agencies. Such model does not force researchers to waste a significant amount of time at collective writing, synchronization meetings and expense justification. Ask American researchers who experienced European projects if they want to do it again. Their answers are likely to be harsh about this crazy administrative nightmare.

I found this research organization far more efficient since it allows researcher to focus on their core activities. And I am afraid that the situation gets especially worse in France because I see a growing number of "administrative managers" who gravitate around the academic world. They are expected to be "interface" between researchers and funders, but their job (to organize researchers and to set up "calls for projects") actually interfere with researchers.

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