How to handle scientist vacancies when writing an ARS project plan
Clear, well written plans are the result of considerable effort and, in a majority of cases, the expertise of several members of a research team. But when research positions are vacant articulating the scientific plan can be difficult or, in some cases, not possible. Because each vacancy may affect research teams to differing degrees, rather than providing uniform guidance the following are scenarios that could be used to aid in determining an appropriate course of action when there are vacancies a project plan’s scientific staff. It is not expected that plans will, necessarily, fall neatly into one of these scenarios, but they are intended to present the range of possible solutions.
Scenario 1. The vacancy is in the same (or similar) subject area as other scientists on the project. (For example, if a “Research Molecular Biologist” is to be hired, and there is another “Research Molecular Biologist” on the project) or there are willing and able colleagues who could be enlisted to provide the necessary expertise.
- The project plan should be written in full, as the subject matter can be addressed credibly by scientists currently on the project. Statements can be added to reflect the expected input of the new hire (i.e., “Collaborations will be established by the individual in the presently vacant position”).
- Draft plan should be reviewed by experts in the aspect of the research to be covered by the vacant position.
- Milestones should be filled in as usual, and can be altered later by the new scientist through existing mechanisms.
- A statement may be included indicating that, should the new hire diverge significantly from the intended plan, a revised plan may be subject to a subsequent peer review.
Scenario 2. The vacancy is in a subject area that is not represented by any of the other scientists on the project.
- To the extent possible, sections of the plan should be written as if the vacant position was filled. This can serve to provide a rationale for the need for research and the integration of all aspects of the plan, and will identify any overlaps with other projects. However, it may be necessary to include statements that a more thorough development of the background and approach will be part of the initial responsibilities of the new hire.
- Approach section should include 1) An overview summarizing the goals and expected outcomes of all aspects of the research, and 2) Expected interactions of the new hire with other members of the team as well as collaborations that will be needed to do the work. Statements can be added to reflect the expected input of the new hire (i.e., “Collaborations will be established by the individual filling the vacant position to do X,Y,Z). 3) A statement “Experimental plans to meet these goals will be drafted by the new scientist within six months of the start date. If they depart significantly from the plan presented here, a revised plan could be subject to new review.” 4) Milestone table should include this objective, and the statement included in the milestone column: “Milestones will be established by the new scientist.”
- Colleagues or collaborators with expertise in the missing scientific discipline could be sought to assist in the writing of portions of the plan relevant to the vacancy. The draft plan should be reviewed by experts in the aspect of the research to be covered by the vacant position. The addition of a documented collaborator who is a recognized expert and their efforts in strengthening the plan can be a good way to instill confidence. The plan could note that the collaboration is being established in part to obtain the needed expertise until the position is filled.
- It should be noted that this approach is not without risk. If the sections pertinent to the vacancy are too much of the plan, or if they display a weak or inaccurate understanding of the technologies or problem addressed, the plan may score low (See also Scenario 3, below). If, however, the needed expertise is a small portion of the plan and the rest is clear and well constructed, reviewers may be inclined to accept this “promissory note.” Review by those who have expertise in the missing area can serve to address such potential problems.
Scenario 3. There are multiple vacancies or an individual vacancy creates such a significant scientific gap that writing a successful plan is highly unlikely.
- Consider a request to postpone (Appendix 14, OSQR Handbook). Approval of a decision to postpone comes from the Associate Administrator for Research Operations and the primary criterion is that the deficiency is significant and there is no other practical alternative to completion of a plan that is likely to pass peer review. While it is understood that unexpected circumstances may necessitate a late postponement request, every effort should be made to submit a request for postponement as early as possible to allow time for writing, review and approval of the plan, should the request be denied. Please note that recent experience suggests that successful Postponement requests are not approved if the writing of a plan is only “difficult” as opposed to impossible.
- Work with the National Program Leader to remove the objectives that cannot be developed from the project and write the project based only on those for which there is expertise. Assuming that the plan will be certified, when the vacancies are filled at a later date, new objectives can be issued and an ad hoc review, as necessary, can be scheduled (see OSQR Handbook appendix on Significant Change). NOTE: It is NOT possible to include objectives in a plan with the statement that they will be developed and reviewed later and that reviewers should not consider them (The score applies to all objectives in the plan. Reviewers cannot approve some and not others).
The critical error seen on occasion is for a Lead SY to try to “fill in” in an area where they do not have expertise, in the hope that they could say enough to get past a review panel. The result is information that can appear to the panel to be thin, inadequate, naive, or manifestly incorrect. If a critical vacancy exists and the plan proposes work in that area, the foremost question from a panel will likely be “who is providing this expertise?” But above all, whatever is written in the plan needs to be current, sound science. Strong, clear, and expert collaborations can often provide a satisfactory “interim solution.”