Research, and Development (a lament for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer)


I’ve been thinking about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a lot in the last week…

Solskjaer just got fired as manager of Manchester United. A legend as a player, he made the switch to coaching in 2008. After middling success with Molde in Norway and a less successful spell with Cardiff City, he was then suddenly given the chance to run Man U in a caretaker position after Jose Mourinho’s sacking. What followed was an amazing run of results that led to him being given a long-term contract just as that run ended. The run of good results never resumed.

He failed in the long run, as most research groups and indeed most small businesses do, and in this case despite lavish resources and a level of patience and support from on high that arguably was denied to his predecessors. 

Running ManU would have been his dream job. And he got to do it. And things didn’t work out.

It’s an arc that will be familiar to many scientists, including myself. Running a lab has been my dream job since childhood. I got to do it. And things haven’t worked out.

Like many postdocs, Solskjaer showed enough promise to be given a chance with a big job, and had the ambition to take the chance when offered. The problem was that once the initial euphoria of his arrival wore off and the hard business of actually running a team began, he was found wanting. 

It’s hard, unfortunately, to write this outcome off as simply bad luck. Read any report of Man U’s recent games and you can see that he appeared out of his depth at this managerial level. He was not lacking in funds. He did not shy away from spending the sums required to compete at the sharp end of the Premiership. He just couldn’t get his players to work successfully together, and he couldn’t get his tactics right on the pitch. The bald conclusion is that he was given all the tools required to succeed, but couldn’t make it work.

Are there circumstances under which he might have succeeded? Was he promoted too rapidly, before he’d had a chance to develop his own style of leadership? Or was he a good fit for management, but someone more comfortable handling an underdog team than a front-runner? (Like David Moyes, one of his predecessors, who worked miracles at Everton and is doing so again at West Ham) Or is Solskjaer simply not cut out for management? A great player and one wanting to try the next level up, but simply not being suited to it?

This last point too, is not unusual. The skills that bring success as a player don’t guarantee equal success as manager, just in the way that having a successful PhD or postdoc phase is no guarantee of either success or longevity as a group leader.

In science, the transition from postdoc to group leader is very similar to that of player to manager, and just as with Solskjaer, there’s one respect in which the dice are loaded. In science, some people get to start their groups with a lot of financial resources; others are forced to scrape by with what they can manage.

Confronted with this disparity, it’s hard not to think that a more equitable distribution of funds –  one where junior groups can grow organically, instead of being either financially doped or starved – might allow a more efficient maturation of scientific workforce. In the US, it’s been shown that fully half (!) of NIH funding goes to a privileged 2% of all institutions. Capping NIH funding to individual groups at a still-generous 1 million dollars per annum would free up sufficient funds to support 10,000 new group leaders.

This more equitable distribution of funds would let people first prove themselves in these new and unfamiliar leadership roles, letting them be sure that this is something they want to do and can continue to do, before the really big bucks are invested. It would also lets them learn the trade and optimise their leadership skills before they have to deal with large numbers – both in terms of funds and people. 

We’re in a weird situation now where it is usually research performance alone that determines whether or not you are a strong candidate for tenure, but the opportunity to demonstrate that kind of performance is not given equally. We accept that not every successful postdoc will be a good group leader, but we persist in creating highly unequal fields of candidates rather than trying to give those that want to run groups a level chance to prove themselves.

This is a bit like lavishly watering only one corner of a cropfield, and then using the fact that the plants grew much better there as evidence that the water was put in the right place. But you won’t find which plants grow best unless you water all of them. Currently, many groups will fold or dwindle into insignificance despite having all the attributes necessary to succeed, but lacking the resources to prove it.

Because while it’s projects that are funded, it’s people that the money is given to. Funding is a public investment in the research and development – of scientists. And for optimal results, it’s surely best to nurture as many of them as possible, instead of a lucky few.

3 thoughts on “Research, and Development (a lament for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer)

  1. I could not agree more – the current paradigm is the self-fulfilling prophecy.
    I am really sorry to hear that you will (or may?) have to close shop. Your introspective voice is both beautiful and precise on dissecting important problems.


    1. Hi Joaquín, thanks for taking the time to write.

      I’m hopeful that when (it’s much more of a “when” than an “if”, unfortunately) the group folds I’ll be able to find something that positions me close enough to research/academia to let me continue to blog from the inside. 😉


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