CASE STUDY: The Babraham Institute

The Institute is involved in biomedical research, including research into healthy aging and molecular biology. Karen Vincent leads the delivery of strategic and governance projects for the Institute, and Robert Pyke, Babraham Institute’s CIO and Deputy Director of Operations, has been involved in project management for many years through work on IT transformation projects.

Over the past 20 years, the Institute has used PRINCE2 to manage IT transformation projects and other major change programmes. Although the Babraham Institute is yet to use formal project management methodologies for research projects, Karen and Robert note that the use of project management approaches in research is on the rise. Robert feels that the landscape is changing, with larger research organisations embracing project management techniques for major research projects. For example, there are project managers working on the European  Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme – the largest EU research and innovation project to date. Karen believes that the uptake of project management methodologies in research is being  driven by specification from funders, some of whom have observed the benefits of project management on corporate projects. Prior to joining the Institute, Karen managed a £3.1 million Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award in Science programme for the University of Cambridge – as this was a large grant, the funders specified the inclusion of a project manager that would oversee the associated research.

Both Karen and Robert are optimistic about the opportunity for project management approaches to have greater uptake on research projects moving forward. A key challenge for project  managers working on research projects is a relative newness of project management in this sector, as researchers and academics typically have not had the broader experience of project management and are unclear as to what their role and involvement should be. As a result, the project manager’s role can span both managing the programme and communicating what
they are doing and why.

Karen and Robert also note that research projects also differ from corporate projects in that researchers require freedom to explore findings. Project managers working on research projects therefore need to balance meeting the project’s milestones with allowing researchers the freedom to do exploratory work. Both Karen and Robert highlight a need to avoid overburdening
researchers with documentation – Karen states that she wouldn’t show researchers all of the documentation the project, but keep it on a ‘need to know’ basis. Robert agrees, stating that the project management principles can still be used without extensive documentation – flexibility is the key.

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