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20 Dec 2016

My corporate experiment: a scientist learns from business

Written by Dr Sidonia Eckle for Nature INDEX

Academics can learn a lot from the corporate world.

I’m a postdoc at The Doherty Institute in Melbourne and last month I was awarded almost half a million dollars of research funding, which sets me on a path to leading a laboratory myself. Being the head of a laboratory is like being the CEO, the CFO and the COO of a risky startup company. But as an early-career scientist, with no formal leadership and finance training, the only role I feel well prepared for is the position of Chief Scientific Officer.

In July, I swapped my lab coat for a suit and spent a day at National Australia Bank (NAB) with Barbara Robertson, its head of product and regulation legal. The experience was part of a mentoring program between the bank and the Women in Science in the Parkville Precinct (WiSPP) that aims to equip female early-career scientists with the leadership skills and confidence they need to be the head of a lab. Fifteen researchers from five biomedical research institutes* in Melbourne participated in the program, each paired with a senior manager at NAB who would mentor us over nine months.

During my visit to NAB, I noticed several distinctions in the way a corporation operates compared to academia. For one, employees at the bank, regardless of their position, had a good understanding of the company’s overall vision. Each person also understood their role in the context of the business’ greater purpose.

This experience made me realise that I didn’t really know the broader vision of the Doherty Institute and the University of Melbourne, nor could I see how my role fit within their objectives. I know others at my level, and students, feel the same.

Science can be a deeply personal pursuit; researchers are often motivated to find answers to a set of questions that interest them. Science funding – which is often awarded as grants to individuals or small teams – can also make research seem like a solitary endeavor. These factors can seem at odds with the idea that scientists should be working towards an overarching vision.

While personal interest and success can be great motivators for some scientists, we must also acknowledge that for science to help address some of the great challenges of our time – climate change, infectious diseases, access to water, and environmental degradation – individual researchers need to bear the bigger picture in mind.

Now, that I know my university’s and institute’s goals, I feel more focused and productive in my job. It also means I can choose projects that align to those objectives.

Another lesson from NAB was the value of a business plan. Next week Barbara Robertson and I will turn my ARC DECRA fellowship and University of Melbourne Establishment Grant, worth AUD$422,000 over three years, into a set of deliverables and milestones, with a budget for research costs and salaries.

While many scientists have succeeded without a business plan, knowing that I have one makes me more confident that I can deliver my taxpayer-funded project successfully, on time and within my budget.

The mentorship experience has left me inspired. Perhaps academia might be more productive and a better workplace if it operated more like a corporation. I have little doubt that having a vision, knowing your role as part of a bigger plan and executing a carefully mapped business plan would also help overcome some of the barriers that academics face when trying to build partnerships with industry. These can allow scientists to translate their fundamental research findings into a product or service that can have an impact on society.

*The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

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