Research & Administration

“Science must be innovative. It brings change.
That’s why science and bureaucracy fight a constant war.”
Dune Vol. 6: “Chapterhouse Dune”

I’ve made my own experiences lately regarding the difficulty between creative research and administration.

We needed to buy a new mobile eye tracker at our institute. The science staff interested in working with it had a look at competing offers, and, after some long and intensive discussions, we decided for a model from a start-up company. The company is small but their product is — at the moment — the best one we could find. The proposed mobile eye tracker was discussed among the scientific leaders at our institute and we got the information that they had agreed to it.
We thought that at this point, the process was finished and we happily began to look out for the package containing the mobile eye tracker.

Unfortunately, the buy-order did not pass administration.

Administration was concerned regarding the age and future of the company. It is not uncommon that a young company folds after a few years — or even months. And they were concerned that the young company we decided to buy a mobile eye tracker from would die in its infancy — or at least, before the warranty was over.

So they vetoed the decision.

I can understand their standpoint — a mobile eye tracker costs about 30.000 € and that’s a lot of money. I write this with the vibrantly dark memory of conducting the experiments of my diploma thesis on then-stone-aged Pentium computers in a run-down department. So, yes, sure, administration has to justify the purchase before outside auditors and they need good arguments — even if the young company does not fold.

Consequently, over the next weeks, we were hard at work to provide administration with recommendations for the mobile eye tracker by other scientists (not an easy task, given that the company was young and had only sold a few models so far). When we got at least two recommendations, administration began to highlight their concerns in the recommendations.
Now, the recommendations were really good — within technological limits. But administration did not treat them that way. They treated a mobile eye tracker like they would evaluate a car. What was important for administration was not important for the scientists working with the technology, and even worse, what administration considered an asset, was a disadvantage for science.

For example:

  • Duration of experience with the technology: Administration wants long term experience but that is not sensible with rapidly evolving technology
    The researcher who recommended the mobile eye tracker bought it “only” nine months ago. For administration this was too short for a real estimate of how dependable the technology is. But mobile eye tracking is a rapidly evolving technology, kinda like the hey-days of computing technology, where Moore’s Law actually meant something (Hz is like money, once you have a few billions, you loose interest). There should be a new hardware version every year or two, and incremental software updates every few months. Long term experience does not only mean that the technology is robust, it also means that it is out-of-date, i.e., worthless for research where the quality of the measurement counts.
  • Finished development: Administration wants to wait until we can buy the finished version but there will not be a finished version
    There’s an old maxim that you always buy too early in technology. If you wait a few months, there will be a new model that is superior to the one you bought — and it might even be cheaper. When I was in my last year at school, I (privately) bought a Pentium Notebook for 6000 DM1 (about 3000 €). Today, I would get three notebooks for the same price, and they would all be way superior to the one I bought then. But it makes no sense to wait, you have to jump in and buy one of those constant-beta versions. However, that the company “since then they have made many improvements” was considered a negative for Administration. They proposed to wait for the finished version. I guess there will be a finished version one day, when the domain is no longer interesting and all burning research questions have been answered — by other scientists.
  • Prototypes: Administration does not want to be the guinea pig but for research a prototype means that we can get data no one else can and that the developing company accommodates to our needs
    Administration wants technology that works with proven reliability, that you can specify, plug in and it works. Always, reliably, and continuous. For administration, prototypes are not products but things you keep in research and development — and you never sell them to unsuspecting audiences. But in some areas, prototypes are actually beneficial. We are researchers, we work on the cutting edge of technology, of knowledge, of science. If we can get technology that allows us to capture data that no one else can (because they did not think about it) it’s a huge advantage. We are not doing off-the-mill production work, we define what production for practice could look like. If we can get a company to give us prototypes to accommodate our needs, we dance in joy. We are happy to be guinea pigs because our work is this anyway.

In short, it’s a matter of perspective. What is good for administration is not good for cutting edge science — positive long-term experience, unchanging technology, robust construction, no new developments in sight — we’re not talking about buying a hammer or a car that drives us from A to B. We are talking about doing research in a rapidly evolving field, which describes all sciences that are not dead. And scientists are used to work with tools that are evolving rapidly, there is the need for constant learning of new methods — and the best scientists are heavily involved in refining the methods they work with.

Like I said, I can understand the perspective of Administration. They have external auditors they have to answer and they need those answers before an irrevocable decision is made that could cost the institute lots of money. I don’t think they are evil for vetoing the buy, their decision is rational and right one — from their perspective. Their quality criteria are opposite to ours, but this way, they constitute a necessary counterweight for scientists who would otherwise run the institute into bankruptcy. Unchecked, scientists would be prone to spending all their money on fancy but unstable things they spend all day improving instead of gathering publishable data. Administration has to be extremely skeptical and focus on the negatives. I guess, if we had included Administration earlier, when we were debating the different options, they would have seen our point of view and retrieved enough arguments to justify the decision to buy from a young company to the external auditors. And next time I am involved in such a purchase, I will try to do exactly that.

For now, however, I have to find a way to convince some very intelligent and rational people to do something that is not in their interest but in ours, to invest in something that might turn out to be a waste of money. And I don’t think that addressing their concerns regarding the long term experience, the speed of development, or being involved in the development of the technology we use is going to be a problem. I think it stands or falls with convincing them to trust a young company, because I think that this is their main reason for vetoing the buy. And they are right, there is a risk that the company might fold. I have the same concern. But I want to do some studies and I can’t do that without a new eye tracker (I had originally planned to have done them by now). Sure, I cannot do that if the eye tracker malfunctions and the company is no longer in existence for support. But frankly, I’m willing to take that risk, because it’s an acceptable risk in research.

But unfortunately, it’s not an acceptable risk in administration.


1 No, I was not brought up with a golden spoon nor do I own one now. I worked for two(!) complete(!) summer breaks (12 weeks in total) from 8 to 5 o’clock in a medium-sized company. I earned that notebook and I sacrificed much for it.