Looking Out for Deal-Breakers

Farsighted project leaders can keep vital scientific research on the right track.

After World War II, researchers in government laboratories had collegial relationships with scientists in academia and industry. Now the practice is to contract for their services. Contracting laws have become so complex that government project leaders need advanced technical degrees and extensive training in finance, contract law, security, ethics, technology, equal employment opportunities and small business to manage competitions. Scientists who compete for research contracts often lack similar training, which contributes to conflict and confusion over why a proposal was rejected.

Project leaders have a tough time evaluating contract proposals fairly when they lack technical expertise and don't know who they can turn to in their agencies. They often solicit anonymous volunteer evaluators from the scientific community, but several problems dog that system. For starters, the evaluators usually are competitors of those who made the proposal. In addition, they are not always qualified, and because their services are donated, there's no way to ensure the validity of their evaluations. Project leaders should recruit better academic talent by offering payment for evaluations, ruling out conflicts of interest and requiring the release of evaluators' names and credentials.

Another hurdle arises when a bidder who fails to win an award believes the competition was unfair because the project leader was biased. Perceived bias starts when one bidder is thought to have greater access to a project leader. Although project leaders are honor-bound to behave according to agency standards of conduct, upper managers should trust but also verify. They should require project leaders to present frequent in-house reviews of the contract award process, even before independent entities, such as the comptroller, merit pay supervisors, and contracts and legal officers, weigh in.

Research contracts are critical for the Defense Department, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies that have identified gaps in the U.S. technology base that affect their missions. Some agencies issue generic announcements soliciting research proposals from scientists in academia and industry to develop solutions. But using generic announcements often spreads available funds thinly across too many projects. The result is incomplete research, ineffective or nonexistent technology development, and poor use of whatever paltry investment has been made.

Bidders responding to generic calls tend to focus on the technical content of their proposals as opposed to cost. Project leaders end up funding too many studies that aren't financially viable. They should team with other agencies to lay out and adequately fund plans that ensure new technology not only is studied but developed into useful applications. For example, a recent Army research program on joining metals was forwarded to a Navy project leader with funding for developing process controls, and then to an Air Force project leader for commercialization in a small-business program.

This sort of creative collaboration generally falls beyond a project leader's normal job description. It is time-consuming and risky. Upper management should set up a reward system for those daring and innovative project leaders willing to work outside the envelope.

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