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The life of PIs

Principal investigators are appointed for their skills in research, and then expected to become managers. If they are to balance both roles successfully, they need more training and support, says James Cunningham.

Becoming a principal investigator is a significant milestone in a scientist’s career. It brings new capabilities and autonomy, and enables the scientist to pursue a long-term vision in his or her research and career.

But the PI role brings challenges that go beyond scientific research. The main tasks of publicly funded PIs include leading research programmes; overseeing the management of projects; recruiting, supervising and sometimes mentoring staff; financial management; ensuring all deliverables and deadlines are met; and submitting technical documentation and progress reports.

PIs are also expected to design and schedule their research projects; coordinate and direct a research team; liaise with, for example, multinational organisations and small and medium-sized businesses; act as a contact point for communication with the funding agency; and flag and respond to institutional or project issues. Publicly funded PIs operate within the dual control mechanisms and bureaucracies of their own institution and their funding agency.

PIs, then, are seen as research leaders but must also be managers. This latter role may not have been anticipated or welcome, and the varied tasks and duties require effective skills and approaches.

As part of a large-scale study of PIs in science, engineering and technology in Ireland, funded by the Irish Research Council, my colleagues and I have explored many aspects of the PI role. One aim has been to develop a deeper understanding of the factors that inhibit PIs when they lead publicly funded research.

We interviewed 30 publicly funded PIs who conceived of or coordinated their projects, and we found that the primary motivation for becoming a PI was the advancement of knowledge. We also found that three sets of factors, which can be categorised as political and environmental, institutional and project-based, inhibited their ability to achieve this.

Political and environmental factors included the tensions caused by a PI’s desire to do research and a funder’s expectation of technology transfer, and by the competing desires of funders and industry partners. Publicly funded PIs have to balance funders’ demands to deliver on the project objectives and industrial partners’ desire to exploit technology. Short deadlines and inconvenient timing of funding calls were identified as other problems.

Institutionally, there were inhibiting factors related to technology transfer offices, which were seen to focus more on protecting intellectual property than on seeking commercial opportunities, and to lack the skills to push technology towards the market. Recruiting and retaining staff was also a significant issue. For PIs, finding the best research talent and officers was essential.

At the project level, the lack of dedicated support, the administrative burden and the power of industry partners to influence the timing and direction of research were major inhibitors. PIs reported difficulties in maintaining industrial partners’ interest in a research project over its lifetime, and such partners’ short-term demands could be difficult to meet.

Publicly funded PIs, in other words, must provide managerial as well as scientific leadership. Combined with increased competition between universities and increased demands for accountability and transparency from funders, this creates a significant and growing amount of administrative work.

Researchers must strike a delicate balance between the roles of research leadership and research management. The majority of PIs in our study learned exclusively on the job. One clear message—expressed by all our interviewees—was that PIs and PIs-to-be needed more tailored and formalised training and support from institutions and funders, both before and after assuming the position, to deal with the increasing complexity of the role and the expectations that come with it.

Institutions, in particular, need to work out how best to provide this, post-funding, so that the administrative duties that come with public funding do not overshadow the research leadership and scientific duties that allowed PIs to secure such funding in the first place.

Our study also raises the question of how best to prepare scientists for the role of PI during the doctoral, postdoctoral and early career stages. The answer will be some mix of formal, tailored training and work experience that enables scientists to understand their leadership and managerial strengths and capabilities.

Publicly funded research is critical for scientists to shape novel scientific trajectories, and PIs are the main agents of this process. Their work at the frontiers of science expands our knowledge base and benefits us all, directly and indirectly. If they are to contribute consistently and effectively to knowledge advancement, their role needs to be better recognised and more effectively supported by all those who employ them and fund their research.

James Cunningham is director of the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change at the National University of Ireland, Galway. The research discussed in this article is published in The Journal of Technology Transfer vol 39, 93-110.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight