On Leading a Research Group

Research group

For biomedical departments research and scientific output have become of great importance. Clinical research group as one of the subgroups of biomedical research groups need talented researchers and proper management to survive in “the scientific rat race”.

The research group itself is not the only factor contributing to it’s success. Other important factors are the organization in which the group is embedded, national scientific policy as well as the community itself play an important role.

What factors contribute to the success of research groups?

  • Research groups consists of 80% researchers and 20% administrative personnel.
  • The optimal size of a research group is 10. When a group is larger as is more common these last 10 years, a co-chair is necessary. The average group size in The Netherlands has grown from 14,4 in 2002 to 17,0 in 2007. Groups larger than 20 are less efficacious in the sense of scientific output.
  • Co-chairs are usually more involved in experiments and research than the chair. Other tasks are evenly distributed between both: management, supervision of PhD students, patient care and education.
  • Managing research groups means organizing regular meetings about the research, about long term research plans, performance interviews with the researchers.
  • Most chairs of research groups, 40%, left their job as a chair of the research group within 5 years.
  • Scientific output overall has increased due to the larger group size of research groups, mostly PhD students.

How do top or very successful research groups differ from less successful research groups?

  • Top groups more often have a co-chair compared to less successful groups. Top groups are usually larger.
  • Top groups usually receive grants from more different sources and less common financial sources
  • Chairs of top groups compared to chairs of less successful groups, spent more time on research, they divide their time more evenly on their tasks, they usually spent less time on education. Chairs of top groups are more actively engaged in the research.
  • Chairs of top groups are better in strategic decisions. They use more considerations in their decisions than other chairs.
  • Chairs of less successful research groups are usually less experienced.

What appealed to me is that ongoing participation of the chair in research is necessary for success. I think the same is true for clinicians leading a department or medical educators. They have to do some patient care. You have to stay in the trenches in order to be of use and successful in education and patient care. What do you think?

These conclusions about leading a research group are from the Rathenau Institute. They collected data in 2002 and 2007 with a questionnaire sent to chairs of all biomedical research groups in The Netherlands. Output of the research groups were evaluated using two databases: the Web of Science and PubMed.

The Rathenau Institute is an independent organization that concerns itself with issues on the interface between science, technology and society, and that provides politicians with timely and well-considered information. Since 2004 the Institute has also been investigating how the science system performs and how it responds to scientific and social developments

The report is only available in Dutch on their website

Van der Weijden, Inge, Maaike Verbree, Robert Braam en Peter van den Besselaar (2009) Management en prestaties van onderzoeksgroepen – samenvatting van de bevindingen. Den Haag; Rathenau Instituut; SciSA rapport 0913A.