Teaching project partners to bake a cake

Science and research are funded from a great many sources but from practically every source, there has been a huge push to demonstrate that you’re working together with other people. Now what they don’t mean is working with other people like a boss-employee relationship, more like a friendly series of groups all working together under a happy rainbow of collaboration.

I’m hugely in favour of this, partly because everyone working together sounds like the right thing to do, but mostly because I’m a biochemist working in a physics department and I’ve staked my entire career on people wanting to work on lots of cross-science projects. That should have been clear from my thinly veiled Brexit analogy blog post.

Now I’m not going to get into how group projects run. That would be a much longer post filled with expletives and some personal threats. This article is the bit before that, it’s about how you start a big collaborative project.

And to make this more accessible to everyone I’m going to use the analogy of a delicious cake. For the purposes of this article you are a researcher with a dream of making a delicious cake but you’re going to need funding and to get that funding, you need to pull together a range of cake baking skills.

Bakers assemble!

Collaborations require one central concept, collaborators – the clue is in the name. Choosing which collaborators you are going to build a project with is tricky as you need to do two things. Firstly, based on what kind of cake you are making, you’ll need to put together a team that has a varied skill set which covers every aspect of the cake making process. So possibly a recipe writer/chooser (probably you), expert shopper, someone skilled at mixing ingredients, another person with skills in running ovens and finally, a cake decorator.

What you might have is two people with excellent oven skills. You might want to keep both in the grant as you are hoping to use them for later non-cake projects and one of them has a combi oven, which will be useful for that first turkey recipe you want to try. This is fine but your grant is to make a cake so don’t forget to write up a very compelling reason why you want want to bake a cake in two ovens instead of just one.

Time plan

It’s important to draw up a time plan for no other reason than a time plan means deadlines and, like scientists, bakers work better to deadlines. You’ll throw this plan out almost immediately but it’ll feel good to have one to throw out, and in the months to come it’ll be nice to look back and laugh wryly at how naive you were.

A time plan is also a good opportunity to find out what everyone is going to want out of this project. As I’ll cover shortly, everyone wants something out of a project – sometimes it’s just to be part of a cake, and sometimes it’s to try out an experimental form of mixing. If they put down that the mixing stage is going to take 12 months instead of the more normal 10 minutes that’s a good indicator that they are hoping to use this project to get a bit creative.

Work out what everyone else is making

You are making a cake. You are. No one else is, they are mixing batter or baking batter or licking icing off a spoon, only you are trying to actually make a cake. This sounds a bit strange but think of it this way, the person with the oven loves ovens, wants to maybe make better ovens or just work out the best way to use an oven, they are not super interested in cakes, just that cakes can be made in their oven, but so can chips. To them the cake is a convenient means of getting to do stuff with the oven.

So early on you need to know what everyone else wants. Maybe the ingredients shopper wants to try a new method of ingredients based on human responses to the colour red? Maybe the icer wants to see if you can make edible titanium… Some will be things that will add to your cake and make the idea of baking it sound even more amazing and impressive to the grant people. Some might sound like needless padding and a distraction from the core ‘making a cake’ project.

Your job is firstly to make a cake, but you need to make sure everyone else gets to make or try the thing they want to try.

Don’t make ALL the cakes

With all those people involved all with their separate side projects, there is a tendency to start trying to please everyone while also making the most feature-packed cake in the world. Don’t.

Funders typically like people with a clear vision for a cake, not a vision for a cake that is actually 15 cakes crammed into one recipe. You might start off with a nice vanilla sponge with strawberries (let’s imagine a while where that’s a novel and exciting project worthy cake) but after discussions with the collaborators you might be now making a 15 tier cake which will take 15 years to make and include a 5 year “cake sampling” exercise.

Collaborating on a cake is about compromise and balance. Just because one of the partners has some new cake testing analysis kit, that’s no excuse for letting them now add in an entire cake analysis side project – but it might be enough to do some ‘preliminary’ cake analysis. The same is true of buzz words – the internet of things is very popular, but you do not need to have every cake connected to the internet.

Apply for it!

This seems a little bit superfluous but I felt it worth adding. The above sounds frightening and daunting, and in many ways it is. BUT if you can negotiate your way through all those things then you can get your application in for money to make your perfect cake! Precisely zero cakes get made from grant applications you don’t submit.

If you want to get an idea of the above process before embarking on a collaborative project, then I suggest you spend an afternoon teaching a 7 year old how to bake a cake. It’s lots of fun provided you don’t mind that as a result you get a pretty messy cake, a very messy 7 year old and a kitchen that looks like it is now more mess than it is kitchen.

If you don’t have kids and want to simulate the experience then persuade one of your friends to drink about 3 Red Bulls, eat a whole bunch of sweets and then try to teach them how to bake a cake. They’ll only be about half as energetic as a 7 year old but at least it’ll give you an idea of the utter chaos that is trying to plan a collaborative project.

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