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How to maximize R&D time tracking compliance

Time is money or any other commodity we care to translate it into, but the brutal truth is that it's the only resource we cannot recycle. So whatever your perspective, you have to admit that time is priceless. But when we look at the timespans it takes to research, develop, approve, and market a successful drug or medical device within the context of a society bent on instant gratification, it's tempting to question the importance of tracking how much time Dr. So-and-so spent on any given project today, this week, or even this month.

The fact is—as we have often stated at R&D Logic—that science needs to find its way to the market to sustain its practice, and business needs science to sustain competitiveness and growth. Time is always going to be a critical measure in this exchange, and as a guardian of financial coherence in an R&D environment—among other responsibilities—you know very well that it could hold the key to the survival of a Life science operation. But as long as you try to argue your needs from a purely financial or business perspective, you may find many scientists hard of hearing.

So how can you maximize R&D time tracking compliance? Moreover, how can you increase the odds that the information you collect is "real"?

Let's try to put ourselves in the shoes of the scientist. Instead of relying on R&D Logic's decades of experience in the Life science industry, we have resorted to a blog entry at Vitae that discusses time sheets and researcher's attitudes towards them. It's titled "Freedom and Accountability"—a very suggestive choice of words, if nothing else.

Three insights arise from this document and the comments that follow it, which in turn suggest how to go about R&D time tracking with scientists:

  1. orange 2794 640what works best, a stick or carrot approach? While a stick may work in some circumstances—"turn in your timesheets, or forfeit your next paycheck"—the tone of the entry and comments suggest you don't want to trigger a "fight or flight" response in a researcher's mind. The carrot seems more likely to produce the desired results (accurate time tracking) in a sustainable fashion, so we would suggest you articulate the imperatives of R&D time tracking in a way that is meaningful to a scientist, and his or her collective (and even individual) professional needs and aspirations. In plain English: make it clear what's in it for them, which leads us to the other two points.
  2. screen shot 2013 09 11 at 3.50.01 pmis research work quantifiable? As the blog writer clearly states, at the end of the day she gets measured by her output. The ability to correlate that output with a time input—however estimated—is a privilege many professions don't enjoy. Science being the bastion of the autonomous mind (freedom), you would think it's an easy sell: would you rather create a record of where you spend your efforts, or have someone else (mis)represent it for you? Or even: the beauty of the timesheet is that each individual has the freedom to quantify his or her accountability (which takes us right back to the intriguing title of the blog entry).
  3. what is "billable" time in research? The blog writer speaks about the difficulty of assessing where "work" time begins and ends. She mentions the thinking and reading time spent outside the work environment, and wonders how to treat it. In and of itself, that's a ripe topic for research.

Neuroscience indicates that not only is it during downtime that our brains are sufficiently relaxed to facilitate new synaptic connections, but that some of that productive downtime is sleep time. That is definitely "quality time" for research, but it could take us into complex arguments about what the working week consists of in terms of hours, what one's contract states, etc.

The first point we can make here is that there are two ways to quantify time: in absolute or relative terms. It is likely more fruitful for a scientific mind to think of time in relative terms (i.e., in percentage of total "thinking & working") as opposed to hours and fractions thereof. Then, if required, convert back to hours based on the contracted time—or use software that can do that automatically.

Screen Shot 2013 09 11 at 3.47.23 PMBut that's just mitigating the scientist's discomfort. What's really in it for them? The possibility of assessing—mid- and long-term—what works, what it takes and, if they're clever, some insight on why some things work and others don't —though timesheets will bare no claim to this latter discovery. Science is a volley between exploration and experimentation, and having a statistical account of where all that precious, non-recyclable resource we call time goes is a valuable asset for any scientist's career.