The Dark World of Research Administrators

The Dark World of Research Administrators

Dark_world_destroyedResearch administrators spend a lot of time trying to convince people of things. Whether it’s persuading senior leadership that additional staff will be needed to meet a new sponsor requirement or investigators to get their proposals in just a teeny bit earlier – someone always seems to need convincing. In fact, looking back over a number of years as a research administrator, I realize now that an inordinate amount of my time was spent working to convince someone of something.

We go to meetings and attend webinars like those sponsored by our professional societies – NCURA, SRA, SARIMA, ARMS, etc. – to learn not only about the things that we’ll need to convince others about when we get back to our offices, but about strategies others have found effective in doing so. We read the society journals and magazines to ensure we have all the right facts and figures to support our positions. We join list servs and collaboration groups like RESADM-L and NCURA Collaborate to get real-time affirmation that we are, indeed, not crazy when we suggest that there is more than one way to organize a sponsored research office.

The Earth moved…

So, I went through a bit of a paradigm shift recently when I read a post on the blog of Dr. Judith Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  In this particular post, she discussed the phenomenon of motivated reasoning and its potential impact on both the science and the public perception of climate science. That is not an entirely new theme for her it seems, but as I read her post and traveled to some of the references she cited, I was struck by the implications of motivated reasoning.

Much of the literature here seems to be from the field of political science – you may recall my prior coverage of Sen. Coburn’s efforts to stop NSF funding for political science research – and boy, are some of those studies eye opening. Eric Horowitz, writing at Pacific Standard, recently reviewed some of this political science literature on motivated reasoning and its ability to explain why, in politics, sometimes making a weaker argument can be more persuasive than bringing out your big guns when attempting to sway the opinions of others. Facts ultimately are not persuasive, it seems.

I’m OK – You’re Not

I suppose that in reality, I’ve known this all along. Trying to change someone’s opinion is generally futile. It can be very frustrating when someone’s opinion is based not on fact but on either blatant untruth or misunderstanding, yet, they remain unwavering in their belief. It turns out that the body of research in this area has documented rather well that when one person attempts a persuasive argument based on facts and fails, the failure may be the result of the other person protecting their own self-worth rather than a poorly made argument. We get bound up in a particular paradigm and then, when presented with overwhelming evidence indicating that paradigm may be flawed, we simply can’t accept that evidence without taking a serious hit to our self-image. In fact, in some cases where strong evidence conflicts with my belief, the stronger my initial belief is, the less likely it is that I will be persuaded otherwise.  I imagine it going something like this:

If I was wrong about that, then what else may I be wrong about? Gee – maybe I’m not as smart a person as I thought. Oh – that can’t be right, so therefore, your evidence must be wrong.

The upshot of this, apparently, is that if your goal is to actually effect change, you may have better luck making a weaker argument and taking it in stages. Small steps aren’t perceived as causing as big a hit on our self-worth. We are not Superman, able to leap over strongly held beliefs in a single bound. But, we can recognize the validity of small arguments based on fact and move incrementally away from our opinions in baby steps.

So What?

So, what is the take home message for research administrators in all this? Take it slowly. Don’t try to convince the CFO that you need a bigger budget right off the bat. Break it to her slowly – there are new regulations we have to meet. We don’t have ideal systems to meet those regulations, so it’ll be brute force. We’ll have to reallocate effort to do that, so some things we do today will be affected. Oh, yes, another FTE will let us do what we do now and meet those new regulations, thank you very much!

As I often suggest to younger colleagues, if you can make it be their idea, they will go for it even if they wouldn’t go for the same thing when presented as your idea. Thoreau seems to have gotten it right when he said, “Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces.”

(Thanks to Marvel Studios and Henry David Thoreau for this month’s theme!)

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