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Lab Dynamics: Science at the Balcony

Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press

How you discuss content or data can be as important as the content or data itself.

Recently, Carl was invited to give a talk on managing science at a national meeting. The session was focused on educating and training medicinal chemists. Each of the speakers addressed a different aspect of helping scientists to manage and interact better. Carl spoke about the interpersonal aspects of managing a scientific group--the subject of our book Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists . He gave concrete examples of how to defuse tense interactions and maintain productive relationships in contentious situations in the science workplace. The second speaker, our colleague Doug Kalish, spoke on the importance of helping scientists in the private sector understand the world in which they operate by educating them in the principles of business and economics.

Finally the third speaker, a medicinal chemist herself, gave a fascinating talk on a mentoring and training program her company developed to teach medicinal chemists the procedural paradigms of their discipline. She concluded her talk by presenting one of these training paradigms in detail, including some technical examples that involved novel ways to add multiple functional chemical groups to a complex organic backbone.

At the end of the three talks, the moderator thanked the speakers for illuminating some creative ways that the scope of science training could be expanded and asked the audience for questions. After a lengthy silence one person, and then several more, drifted up to the microphone in the center aisle. There were three questions in all, each dealing with the (to Carl, arcane) details of the chemical reactions used as an illustration by the last speaker--something involving piperazines. None of the questions dealt with managing scientists, dealing with conflict, or training scientists to pay attention to the nontechnical aspects of their work.

Shift in frame of reference

The scientists in the audience were focused on the technical aspects of science--not surprising since this was principally a technical meeting. The theme of these talks--the important nonscientific aspects of doing science--represented a shift in their frame of reference for which they were perhaps unprepared that morning.

Most of the audience reconvened later that day to listen to a panel addressing the same themes. Interestingly, during the panel discussion the same audience asked many more questions about topics such as motivating scientists, resolving conflicts, and related themes than were asked in the morning session. We wonder whether during the time interval between the two sessions the participants had had time to digest what they had heard in the morning and to shift their frame of reference from a scientific one to an interpersonal one.

Frequently, when someone makes an observation about what we call process--how we interact and communicate with others--when we are in the middle of dealing with content--facts, data, interpretations--we react as though the comment came out of the blue. An example of a process comment is when a leader says "We're getting bogged down by petty arguments and losing sight of our overall objectives." Comments like this frequently have the effect of stopping the discussion in it tracks.

There's a good reason for this: thinking about or talking about process requires a shift in perspective--it takes you away from the content, be it data, strategy, or planning--and forces you to observe how the content is being discussed. People require time to readjust their frame of reference from what they're talking about to how they're talking about it. It doesn't take too many years of experience to appreciate that how you discuss content or data can be as important as the data itself. If you are argumentative, hostile, or even passive, the outcome will be different than if you are collaborative, nonthreatening, and friendly.

Mentally stepping out of the fray and watching what you are doing as if from a balcony is a great way to get a view of the scientific process even as you participate in it. Here are some examples:

  • If you are in a discussion and notice that you are focused exclusively on the scientific content of the discussion, take a minute to step back mentally from the table and observe what else is going on. For example, do you notice that some people are not participating? Noticing this and addressing it at the time may enable you to avert later problems when people who felt that their views weren't listened to resist doing their part of a project.

  • If you are working with a group of scientists on technical issues it may seem only natural to ignore minor conflictual interactions between group members. For example, you might observe that Sara consistently asks skeptical questions when Ron speaks, but you're too involved in the scientific discussion to pay much attention to this observation. Later, you find out that the project they were supposed to be collaborating on has been stagnant for weeks because of a simmering conflict that you didn't know about. You might have averted this delay if you had paid attention to your observation of how Sara reacts to Ron in meetings.

  • If you're giving a scientific presentation to a small group, step back for a moment to observe how people are reacting. If people's attention seems to be drifting, and there's a lot of fidgeting, you may be saying too much about some things or too little about others. Noticing the reactions of your audience gives you the opportunity to stop for a moment and say "I just want to check that I'm covering the topics that you wanted to hear about--am I going into too much detail?" By paying attention to the others in the room instead of forging ahead blindly, you increase the chances of a productive presentation and discussion.

  • Often we engage in scientific interactions with the assumption that if we just get the content (science) right everything else about the interaction is irrelevant. Sometimes this is true but many times it is not, and when it is not the impact can be significant. Projects can fail, collaborations can dissolve, and companies can founder, not because of inherent flaws in science but because of contentious collaborations, misunderstood communications, and bad feelings.

    Behaviors modeled on mentors

    We believe that before scientists as a group start to examine and pay attention to how they interact with one another, respected scientific organizations will need to put their imprimatur on the discipline of doing science. We're not talking about ethics, project management, budgeting, or grantsmanship, though these are all important topics in their own right. Until graduate schools offer courses or tutorials in managing people, working collaboratively with peers, and dealing with scientific disagreements productively, scientists will continue to use behaviors that are modeled on those of their mentors. For the fortunate--those with mentors who deal well with the interpersonal aspects of doing science--these behaviors will be productive and appropriate. But for the rest, their scientific work will suffer.

    When Carl gives workshops, he typically takes an informal survey to assess the impact of interpersonal issues on scientific progress. A typical survey reveals that scientists spend as much as 25% of their time thinking about or dealing with difficult "people problems." More disturbing is that almost a quarter of the participants reported that they have been involved in a scientific project whose progress was hampered by interpersonal problems between 3 and 5 times in their career. Of course just because the scientists in Carl's workshops report that they have "people problems" doesn't mean that they know how to handle them effectively, nor does it mean that they can detect the symptoms that always precede such problems. Suzanne also sees this in her psychotherapy practice. People know they have problems with their relationships but don't understand how they arose or how to address them.

    Periodically "going to the balcony" while doing science can be a great source of data that enable you to discern symptoms before they erupt into problems. Science is too important, too costly, and has too much potential to contribute to the well being of mankind for it to be hampered by "people" problems. Let's give scientists the tools they need to deal with them.

    Carl M. Cohen, Ph.D.

    Suzanne L. Cohen, Ed.D.

    Carl M. Cohen is Chief Operating Officer of Biovest International and President of Science Management Associates ( Suzanne L. Cohen is a Certified Group Psychotherapist and a Clinical Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Carl and Suzanne are co-authors of the book Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2005.