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To analyze a problem or opportunity and then apply the resulting knowledge to create value, you need both science and art. Science is the guiding hand; art, in the form of creative thought, lets you navigate around obstacles blocking the path to the solution. Problems are not solved and new ideas created if science and art are used separately, but together science and art yield solutions and innovation.
Scientists are often expected to use scientific methods to discover and then apply the results. Though discovery and application may seem joined, they are not. Scientists are people, and as such, they have a diversity of strengths and weakness like anyone else. A scientist that is very adept at research may have no clue on how to apply their own discovery. It can be compared to music where composition and performance at the highest level are virtually always unique entities; being a great composer doesn't make you a great performer. The same applies to scientists. There are many good scientists who can tear apart a topic, and there are engineers who can design great things, but there are fewer individuals that can do both. One great master who could combine art and science was Leonardo da Vinci, the renown artists, scholar, scientist, and inventor who continues to instill awe in contemporary man.
Corporate management often finds itself in need of a "Leonardo da Vinci" who can decipher and innovate simultaneously. Unfortunately the corporate environment often fosters a culture that, to paraphrase Charles Darwin, very often selects against inquisitive and creative minds. Corporations need structured processes, validated methods, and tight control in order to operate efficiently and cost effectively. This environment can be very inhospitable to individuals who's strengths are to "break the rules" and think independently. Consequently, when such minds are needed, corporate management must very often look outside of its organization. This is especially true when a fresh approach is needed to confront lingering problems.
Thus, many organizations, whether because of lack of expertise or personnel, find the need to hire outside scientists. These "hired guns" may be individuals or organizations, and may serve as a temporary employee or work independently off-site. Broadly, science which is outsourced is performed by contract researchers and/or consultants. The factors that differentiate a contract researcher from consultant can be gray, but generally, if actual lab work is required, contract researchers are usually sought. If a company doesn't have research labs, then farming the project out to a contract research organization many times is the best, cheapest, and most efficient option to get the job done. Consultants, on-the-other-hand, use their knowledge of a subject to provide suggestions and answers. However consulting doesn't usually involve hands-on lab work. Of course there are organizations that do both.
The title of "contract researcher" is used very loosely to describe almost anyone who does lab work for hire. This job title is synonymous with "painter" which describes both the person who paints your house and Claude Monet. Both people paint, but one is a laborer and the other an artist. The same rationale applies to contract researchers. Contract research is a service provided by individuals or organizations that do skilled work for clients that either don't have time or expertise to do it themselves. Contract research labs provide useful and important services that save customers money as they don't have to establish the skills in-house. But most contract researchers are focused on providing a very specific service, one which is often repetitive. This allows the CRO (contract research organization) to establish well documented and efficient processes which lowers costs and maximizes productivity and profits. However, a CRO's strength is also its weakness, as these operations are not geared for dealing with ill-defined, out of the ordinary projects which stray from their area of expertise.
In a like manner, the title "consultant" is often used very loosely. In corporate America, one definition of consultant is a synonym for temporary, though the assignment may last for years and indeed the person may be very skilled. An alternative definition of consultant is someone who is an "expert". In the life sciences, most consultants/experts are university professors who have the opportunity to focus on very specific topics yet have the flexibility to do consulting "on-the-side". Of course private industry is full of experts, but their knowledge is usually bound by non-disclosure agreements with their employer. Consultants are important when you need to know detail about a specific topic, however that doesn't automatically make them the best people to research a topic and then create value from the data. In the case of academic consultants, the ability to take on prolonged projects may be limited by the lack of facilities (academic institutions often discourage the use of their facilities for outside projects) or the institution may seek royalties for any revenues generated from their participation in the project.
Finding a scientist that can both discover and innovate is not an easy task. Not only is there a need to find the individual or organization, but it is necessary to define what is needed before outsourcing a scientific project. If the work is so ill defined, then one of the objectives might be to define the project or objective. It may certainly be possible that all you know is that there is an opportunity that you want to exploit. Under a non-disclosure agreement, this opportunity must be outlined along with any ancillary requirements. For instance, if a new product opportunity arises, define the opportunity, but also define the market and expected cost of the final product. It does no good for a contracting scientists to develop a $1000 product for a market only willing to spend $10. Thus, it is important to take time to clarify your objectives so that when you approach consultants or contract researchers, the task at hand is apparent. Defining what you need will also help to establish timelines and control costs. Nothing is more frustrating for both a client and contractor than to discover that the objective is not readily in reach based on timelines and budget once the project is started.
As every project is unique, there is no exact checklist to follow when preparing to outsource a scientific project. However, generally some considerations in preparing for a discussion on outsourcing might include:
When discussing projects with a consultant or CRO, present them with key information and then ask them to sketch out possible avenues they would take to successfully complete the project. Look for responses that are off-the-top-of-their-head, but no less intriguing. However, don't hold any consultant to ideas suggested during informal talks or brainstorming. Good solutions almost always require library research, but informal discussions can provide the client with insight as to how scientists think. Without preparation, a scientist who is quick on their feet and knowledgeable about a topic is probably someone to seriously consider as your contractor. However, if the CRO won't give you any input without a purchase order number, look elsewhere.
If the project is one that requires discovery and innovation, prepare yourself to be flexible. Virtually all projects experience obstacles, thus if you tie yourself into a timeline that lacks flexibility, it could be disastrous. Setting milestones can help to prevent cost overrun and missed deadlines. More importantly, milestones will help to clarify when a project is doomed before it consumes limited resources.
Over the past twenty plus years, BT&C has participated in numerous projects which required both discovery and application. Our true strength is to examine, analyze and innovate. This niche provides us with challenges and food for thought. This has also provided BT&C with the opportunity to work on an extremely wide array of projects (see case studies). Our company fills a void not addressed by many contract research labs and consultants. The gray area between the consulting and contract research is the habitat of BT&C.
For more information on BT&C's contract research and consulting, click here.