Project Management on a European Scale


Most people I've known since my days as a bench scientist react with dismay to the news that I'm now the project manager for one of the 6th Framework Programme's large new Networks of Excellence funded by the European Commission. I've been forecast ulcers and nervous breakdowns, and sometimes it feels as if these people might be right. Certainly trying to get all the partners organised at the first annual general meeting (AGM) was a bit like herding cats. But on the whole, I enjoy it!

I'm very lucky to have been part of the European Network for Integrated Genome Annotation--BioSapiens for short--right from the beginning. I've been through the last-minute panic on the night before the deadline, the first leaked news that we had been successful in the evaluation, the lengthy contract negotiations, when I felt the goalposts were being moved by the Commission all the time, to the first AGM when I finally met all the people I had exchanged hundreds of e-mails with. It would be a much more difficult job to step into the role at this point.

The Spider in the Web

It's still early for me to say what being a project manager means; so far I can only tell you about the process leading up to the start of the project. My job has been to be the spider in the web--collecting information from the 24 partners, everything from administrative data to their scientific contributions, their expertise, and their expectations of the project, while making sure we meet the Commission's deadlines. A very interesting task was to put together a consortium agreement and get all partners to agree to it. This took roughly 6 months, and a lot of my work seemed to consist of calling other people's bluff--not the participating scientists', but the administrators' and legal departments' of universities in 14 European countries. Almost without exception, they all wanted changes to the agreement, and the challenge was to decide the changes you could turn down without jeopardising the signing!

I'm based at the European Bioinformatics Institute, which I joined at the beginning of 2003 as external funding co-ordinator. By then I had been involved with the European Commission in many different roles for over 10 years, and I think the main reason I was offered this job was for my in-depth knowledge of how European Commission funding works, and my longstanding personal contacts with people in the Research Directorate.

Going backwards, my previous job had been in the International Section at the Head Office of the UK's Medical Research Council. MRC Head Office was an interesting place to work: I count the experience as very valuable, although working for the scientific civil service doesn't suit everybody. The very big plus side was being right in the centre of decision-making on the future of UK biomedical science, and, on the international scene, the policy-making behind the EU's Framework Programmes. The equally big downside was a very rigid hierarchical structure which, to my mind, didn't leave much scope for making the most out of people working there and their talents.

How did I, as a former scientist, end up in this position? I have a doctorate in molecular biology from Helsinki University of Technology and have worked as a researcher at various prestigious institutes, including University College London, the University of Cambridge, and Imperial College London.

I think it was at some point during my second postdoc that I realised that a career at the bench wasn't for me. I didn't have a burning passion for any subject in particular, rather an interest in biomedical science in general and perhaps too many outside interests to be prepared to dedicate my evenings and weekends, as well as my official working hours, to pushing back the frontiers of science.

I did really enjoy writing and literature research; I found the writing of my thesis infinitely more enjoyable than the practical work! And there was something else that is more difficult to define--I wanted to be more in control of my own work, to see output that was in some sort of relation to the time and effort I put in, to work on projects that had a beginning and an end.

Keep the Science, Leave the Lab

I started looking around for jobs in which a scientific background would be an advantage, but which would not be in lab-based science. This was easier said than done. I applied, and was interviewed, for a number of jobs--from clinical research associate to librarian--and was usually met with the question: "Wouldn't you miss the exciting science you've been doing?" How do you explain to somebody who's never been inside a lab that sequencing the same stretch of DNA--this was in the days when it was done manually--umpteen times until you're absolutely sure you've got it right may not be quite as riveting as it sounds to a nonscientist? I had washed enough sequencing plates and poured enough gels to last me a lifetime; it wasn't science that I was tired of but the actual practical lab work, and this was not an easy thing to explain to people who didn't have firsthand experience of it.

In the end my move away from practical lab work was gradual. I went to work at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), initially as leader of a small team that developed resources for research in human genetics. PCR had just been invented but was not widely used, and we were setting up a collection of probes for Southern blotting, both by importing them from other labs and testing them, and by developing our own. About a year into this job, a proposal to the European Commission for a European genome mapping project, coordinated by ICRF, was successful, and I became responsible for the day-to-day running of this project. This was the start of my long working relationship with the European Commission, which has led me to the job I'm doing now.

Do I regret leaving lab-based science for an office job? No. Would I recommend it to other scientists, unsure of whether they wish to continue in practical science? Definitely.

I admire and envy people who have a passionate interest in a specific area of science; I could see myself in that situation, but not in the field I chose to study (if I could start again, I'd study palaeoanthropology, but that's another story!). For those who don't have that level of interest, I'd strongly recommend getting into research project management. You have the benefits of being involved in scientific research without actually having to do it. You can do the administrative and management jobs that the scientists you work with see as tedious and time-consuming, but that for me represent tasks with a definite beginning, middle, and end.

It's perhaps not a universal panacea for those who want to move away from lab work: You have to be well organised to make sure all deadlines are met and all partners are involved; diplomatic enough to deal with people of different nationalities, intellectual property people, university lawyers, and administrators; and, perhaps most important of all, unflappable.

The job market for FP6 project managers looks very good. The UK Research Office in Brussels advertises vacancies in just about every newsletter it sends out. These are time-limited appointments, but so are many research posts and almost all jobs here at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I doubt if somebody who has managed a large FP6 project successfully for 5 years would have to go unemployed afterwards. At the end of it, if I've done my job well, I haven't just got the experience of managing 24 partners in 14 different countries, but I also have all the contacts that come with that sort of job.

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