Stress and the single manager

May 31, 1996

Spare a thought for the poor research manager. To humble researchers the job may seem glamorous, well paid and powerful, but the reality is a life of stress and overwork.

They are forever juggling competing claims - drumming up work and money to keep their institutions happy, reassuring sponsors that work is being done to cost and deadline, organising research teams, sorting out staff problems, and finally trying to keep on top of their own intellectual and professional development.

"Juggling that lot is a nightmare," say Leela Damadaran, director of human sciences and advanced technology, a research centre at Loughborough University. "One of the worst things about it is that nobody wants to pay for what's involved in this process. Everybody wants all of these things. Typically, the universities - who are the parent organisations - really don't want to have to dip their hands in their pockets in any sense. They expect a lot and give very little in return."

Set up in 1970, the Loughborough centre is atypical in that it depends entirely on "soft" money, as do independent organisations such as the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Policy Studies Institute. It has no core funding and exists on the money it can muster. This is increasingly the case for all research funding.

Finding the salary costs for 35 research staff on fixed-term contracts, is a burden, says Professor Damadaran who addressed a conference organised by the Association of Directors of Research Centres in the Social Sciences on the subject earlier this year.

Few managers like to see researchers go. "When someone's contract is coming up for renewal it is constantly nagging away at the back of your mind," she says.

At any one time there will be a dozen proposals being written by staff in the hope that research funding will be thrown their way. Much of the Pounds 1.8 million she raises annually comes from utility companies like British Gas and from government departments such as social security. Research at the centre is about the use and design of advanced technologies.

Professor Damadaran says a paid sabbatical would help. In her 25 years at the institute she has not had one, because she is paid as a researcher not as a university academic. She or other researchers may spot interesting themes in the course of research but do not have the time to pursue them.

Like other research directors, Professor Damadaran feels she neglects her own academic and professional development. She also thinks the sponsors of research projects are always demanding more for their money. They may agree, for example, what the sample should be for a study, but as the findings begin to become apparent, they demand more interviews to expand the sample. Researchers tend to be involved in their work. They care about getting it right and doing a thorough job, which means they often sell themselves cheap.

During the 1980s competitive tendering became the norm in research. It was said to promote efficiency, better ideas, and higher quality work. But not all academics believe it is the best way to organise research. "It's a model of appalling wastage because you know that for every successful proposal there are going to be two organisations who have busted a gut for nothing," says Professor Damadaran.

At the Policy Studies Institute in London, one of the biggest independent research organisations, which has 150 projects on the go at any one time and a turnover of Pounds 4.5 million a year, the pace is furious. The length of research projects is becoming shorter, according to Elaine Kempson, a PSI project director. Government departments used to give 18 months for a big national survey. Nowadays it is quite usual for them to want the work done in a year.

There is also much tighter financial management. Before, managers did a rough calculation of how much time a project would take and how long the work would take, and costed accordingly. Now everything is costed by the day. Individuals working on a project are recorded by name and everything is broken down into component parts. That means each person needs to record what they are doing every day on a chart.

Ms Kempson believes research sponsors have the right to know who is working on a project and how much time they are putting in. The changes have produced benefits to both sides in terms of clarity and productivity, but there are stresses. Ms Kempson tries to build in time for unforeseen problems when she puts in a bid for funding. But it does not always work out that way. One government department routinely comes back to negotiate a 10 per cent reduction in the price of a contract after it has been awarded.

It is often impossible to stay within deadline. Ms Kempson recalled one research project involving local authorities where it took months rather than weeks to get names and addresses of people to be interviewed out of local councils. There was nothing PSI could do about it.

Given all the pressure, does she enjoy the work? Yes, she says, though not when the pressures are so great. "There are times when the pressures detract from what you're trying to do, and then the enjoyment goes out of it."

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