What Science Management has learned from International Shipping

A container ship

A container ship. What do you think is in the containers? Image from http://www.cargo-container.net

You may have noticed that it is possible to obtain goods which were manufactured in other countries. In fact, unless you are reading this in China, it is almost impossible not to! One element underlying the mystical appearance of goods from half-way around the world is the humble shipping container.

Standardising the size of the container has transformed world trade. What’s in the containers? Who cares – it makes no difference. Oranges or computers? The container is placed on a lorry at the factory or farm, taken to a dock, loaded, shipped, unloaded, and delivered by lorry or train. The contents of the container are incidental and the fact that the physical containers are all the same size, independent of content has dramatically lowered the cost of shipping.

And that got me to thinking about the way science is managed.

Science is awkward. It forms an unbroken network connecting ideas and techniques; it implicitly involves ‘the unknown’; and is, famously, impossible to manage. The solution has been the containerisation of science via a concept known as ‘a project’. A ‘project’ has specified inputs and outputs, a defined cost and duration, and is eminently manageable. However, in order to fit science into containers, it has to be cut up into small chunks. The most successful projects actually cut one segment adrift from the entire network, and in that way the specified goals of the project may be reached without confusing interference from other ‘branches’ of the tree of science.

Science Project

The tree of science and a project manager's vision. Can you tell which is which? Image from http://karenswhimsy.com

Containerisation of science can be wasteful. Small scientific ideas (from which large ideas grow) are particularly delicate and easily-harmed or even killed by the process. Medium-sized scientific investigations (which is the kind of work which employs most scientists) inevitably become less ambitious and adventurous as a result of the career-limiting prospect of ‘not delivering’. However containerisation is critical to the very existence of large scientific endeavours such as the Large Hadron-Collider. While the public, or a company, might risk a few thousand pounds, or even a few million pounds on a poorly defined investigation, no one would risk a few billion pounds!

Reading this you might think I am slyly denigrating Science Management. No. People managing science – and yes, managers are people too – have an impossible job. And the containerisation of science is their response to being asked to spend taxpayers money or investors money on activities that seem to have poorly-defined beginnings and ends! The only fixed-point appears to be the constant activity of people called scientists- and yes, scientists are people too – doing something they call ‘science’.

It is possible to become depressed at the limited conception of science implicit in the ‘project containerisation’ procedure. But if that is your disposition, I think there are probably better things to become depressed about. In fact the ‘containerisation’ of science is probably a good thing – or at least inevitable. As the picture at the head of the article shows, containers can be stacked together, and hence taken from beginning to end at minimum cost. And the contents will eventually emerge and presumably re-form into their non-containerised form, reconnected to the branches of the tree of science.


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