Making a Case for Project Managers on Research Grants


By Daniel Mongiardi

This year alone UK Research and Innovation (formally Research Councils UK) is operating with a combined budget of £6 billion[i]. However, dedicated Project Managers on research grants are still seen as a luxury available only to teams that secure the largest awards. In this blog post, I will explain why project managers are essential to running live research projects. I will also provide some practical suggestions for enhancing project management on research grants.

WHY PROJECT MANAGERS ARE NO LONGER A ‘NICE TO HAVE’

Historically, I feel that Principal Investigators (PIs) and their research team have been able to manage projects without a Project Manager. However in recent years funders’ requirements have changed dramatically, necessitating a project management specialist.  PIs and researchers will certainly be familiar with the need to demonstrate the value of their output through impact pathways and Theory of Change. Yet scrutiny no longer ends with knowledge generation. To ensure value for money, donors increasingly require research teams to evidence governance and assurance processes in detailed documents. This is in addition to fulfilling a host of requirements such as risk management plans; data management plans; financial management plans, partner terms of reference, Gantt charts, log frames, advisory committees and management groups. The increased workload has no doubt left PIs wondering when they will find time to actually do their research and strengthened the case for Project Managers.

However, Project Managers and Communication Managers don’t come cheap. Given salaries typically comprise up to a third of many research grants, adding a full-time manager can be hard for some to swallow. Nevertheless a qualified and experienced project support team will pay dividends in implementing large-scale research projects. If ever there were a case for promoting the value of Project Managers in research, this is it. Funders’ increasing expectations means Project Managers are no longer a ‘nice to have’. They’re a necessity.

ESSENTIAL PROJECT MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLES

One of the biggest hurdles a PI and Project Manager will face is the lack of established methodologies for managing a research project. Existing Project Management methodologies such as PRINCE 2 [ii]were created to be used in specific settings. However, there are principles common to many methodologies, which can be used to manage research projects.

Dividing tasks into management and leadership and delegating them clearly is a key principle in effective Project Management. Some of the most successful research projects are those where Project Managers manage the day-to-day activities.  In these situations, the PI, or ‘Project Sponsor’ in Project Management methodology is free to ensure the project’s vision and lead the research.

Establishing the Project Support team early on is vital to the project’s success. It’s at the earliest stages where governance models and processes are established, which is where a Project Manager can add significant value. For example, negotiating collaboration agreements and contracts with partnering organisations is a lengthy process and can benefit from an experienced Project Manager’s input. Furthermore both the PI and Project Manager need a thorough understanding of the project’s finances. The team should also develop clear processes for monitoring and reporting finances internally and to funders. Moreover a realistic financial forecast needs to support this process.

Finally, the Research team and Project Manager should consider compiling a well-organised risk register. If done early on, this can significantly reduce the impact realised risks can have on time and budget.

CONCLUSIONS

Project Management is the art of not only mitigating risks included in the risk register, but also implicit threats that every project and organisation faces. Having a dedicated Project Manager or implementing key principles will help teams foresee obstacles and enable them to take preventive action. In this way, they will help ensure the smooth running of any research project.

[i] www.ukri.org

[ii] https://www.prince2.com/blog/the-history-of-prince2/

Daniel Mongiardi is Project Manager for RECAP, a multimillion-pound GCRF Grow funded project. RECAP focuses on the health and protection sectors in humanitarian response. conducting research and strengthening research capacity to help improve decision-making and accountability in response to humanitarian crises and epidemics.