In our interview with Markéta Pánková, we talk about her Grant Support Unit (known as OGP), which she has been heading for several years, grant support for science and research in general, the real work of administrators in project management and sources of inspiration for her work. It is an enjoyable read for anyone who is in the project world or just finding their own way.
What were your "project beginnings" and how did the Grant Support Department come about?
I joined the University as a member of staff in the Faculty of Mechatronics, Computer Science and Interdisciplinary Studies (FM) in early 2009. At that time, research projects were being handled by the faculties and let's say that was one of the two cornerstones of OGP. A second team was formed to plan, prepare and implement the R&DpI project, which determined the creation of the Institute for Nanomaterials, Innovation and Advanced Technologies (CXI). This project was used to build Building L, which now houses CXI, and we bought all the instruments, equipment and facilities. And, of course, we employed our first staff as a result. It was the start-up phase. When the building was finished, everyone moved and these two teams logically merged into one. At that time, the management and formation of the whole OGP was taken over by my colleague Markéta Dubová, who left about 4 years ago for parental "duties". At that time I took over the OGP.
Today, CXI has been in existence for 10 years and there are a number of projects, but you had to "dig through" the projects and their agenda with us back then.
Project beginnings at TULce were a great school, usually quite an adrenaline rush and often a great joy when things went well. We were starting to set up procedures, look for ways, and we were also passing on various experiences and advice with colleagues from other faculties.
What was your idea of how project management worked back then?
None or very little. It was inventing everything from scratch. It was the same on the part of the providers, who also confronted their ideas with reality and what they would actually want from us as beneficiaries. It was - as it usually is in the beginning - trial and error and really and literally. There were a lot of uncertainties and problems. We consulted with each other in the department, then with colleagues across the university. Our constant questions to, for example, the human resources department and other departments in the rector's office as to whether such a solution was possible, whether it was passable from the point of view of the law, when we came up with something, were constant. At that time, there was no such service from the legal department here at the university, there were no public procurement officers and other professional specialisations that had only just "arrived" at the university. This has shifted incredibly in 10 years.
So how does it work?
When a project comes in, we already know how to proceed. Of course, there is always an unusual situation, so we consult with each other or with our colleagues in the Rector's Office. I don't think we ever get to the point where there is no non-standard situation at all. After all, there are a large number of providers, specialist topics and approaches and everything cannot be dealt with according to one template. All it takes is a change of project administrator at a provider and things change.
Have you looked elsewhere for inspiration? Maybe even abroad?
Inspiration should always be sought, just how to set up your own work and internal processes.
We were quite successful in establishing contact with the UCEEB research centre in Bushrad. There are dozens of centres around the country, but here they are the closest to us professionally and humanly. It is the same centre as we are. We exchange experiences with them about projects, their administration and our daily work. At the same time, our directors have always been very connected, so the exchange of experience takes place at different levels. Then there are certainly other universities where we have been able to share how it works, but the initial setup of how the administration and support of projects should work is definitely something we have done ourselves. Now we can only fine-tune and develop it. Of course, we have been to various seminars abroad on different types of calls, on project management or on financial management in science. And it was beneficial, but the most experience we gain is through practice.
What does the work of project administrators look like?
We are a kind of right hand for scientists in administrative matters throughout the life cycle
of scientific research projects. We try to help them as much as possible in the beginning, when preparing applications, so that they don't have to deal with operational and economic issues, don't have to deal with opening applications, find general information necessary for project submission, deal with the complete compilation of project budgets and don't have to simply spend too much time on non-professional activities. We tell ourselves the vision for the project, the team of people who will be involved in the solution, the materials and services that will be needed, and we're already working with and bringing those basic inputs to the final stage. We help the researchers so that they can really just focus on the science part. Sometimes we have to overwhelm them with some of the paperwork that we can't do for them, like the popular filling out of job reports. I think we work well together and we appreciate each other for the things we can do. And that's a big benefit. We're there for each other, we can turn to each other when a situation comes up that maybe we don't know how to handle. We're all different, some people want to go into more detail, and then they need more synergy from us. On the other hand, some people are very independent and use the support service minimally. The mutual cooperation is set up well in our company.
What are the pros and cons of this job?
The big upside is that it's a job with a lot of movement. We don't just sit in offices and write in Excel spreadsheets all the time, but it's mostly working with people. We have to communicate, make plans for practically anything - purchases of materials or services, budget spending, staffing plans. Because of that, I would say, our work doesn't get stereotyped. When communication is over the top, one "crawls" into the office to the spreadsheets and numbers. This is probably the ideal option, it just happens that one has to concentrate on systematic work, which requires that nobody calls, nobody walks by, but that simply cannot be arranged. We have quite a lot of movement of people on the fourth floor. Maybe that movement has been eased a little bit by having a lot of things electronically, which is a huge advantage, and it was noticeable even when we were working from home during lockdown. Another big plus I see in the complexity of our work. The administrator has her own agenda, she handles the project from preparation to completion, there is guaranteed continuity. Of course, less interesting tasks like copying, scanning, checking reports are also part of this job. This is the unpleasant to routine part of the job, but every administrator is fully aware of what is going on in the project. We try to keep an eye on the drawdown and scheduling with the researchers so that the project runs as it should, there are no delays.
One of the big drawbacks of our work is that it varies quite significantly. There are months that are looser, a little bit quieter, that is typical of the beginning of the summer holidays, and then there are months when we have more than enough to do, because the submission and preparation of new projects come together, and on top of that we are preparing reports on existing ones that are due to be completed. There is always a phase after a lot of pressure when there is a bit of a break and not only we, but also the scientists, can take a breath and then merrily move on. Rest is simply necessary.
What about non-standard situations?
Of course, there are adjustments and changes in projects. Usually it's nothing major, but it can happen. We don't bake buns to order, but we plan research 3 years in advance. Which is literally divination from a crystal ball when preparing a project. Occasionally a sudden wave of whatever comes in from inside or outside, but I'd say we can handle absolutely anything by now. That's what we're here for.
Do female administrators have a place in science?
There are always people who would like to do all the work themselves. Here at CXI, we're set up to do the administration in OGP. I think in most cases, colleagues are happy with the service we provide them from OGP. Occasionally, two different opinion groups bump into each other. We deal with numbers, they deal with their business. So, in a way, each side defines its own sandbox and we work. I believe that hopefully we all completely understand that there is no us and them here at CXI, but that we are all digging for one common team. And when everyone lets go of their own ideas about how work and the world works, it not only benefits the whole, but ultimately has its individual benefits. I think it's important to recognize that we are here together in relation to the university as a whole as well. Even here it's not us and them, but we work together, and we have to learn to see that.
In addition to national projects, CXI also has international projects. How does this work?
It is more or less very similar. It has its specifics, but every provider has that at the national level as well. I think to a large extent, for example, the Czech Technology Agency has taken a lot of inspiration from how projects were handled, administered, but also evaluated in Europe and has adopted those practices. The Czech Republic has some of its own specifics like every nation, but I would say that administering an international project is not that fundamentally different anymore. We communicate both with the European Commission as a donor and with our foreign partners with whom we cooperate on the project. Sometimes there can be some confusion, for example in the interpretation of terms, but that is because all the communication is in English and the partners can be from Spain to Finland.
How do you work with foreign partners?
If our foreign partners are really interested in the project, and ideally if they are the initiators of the project, if it is a solution to a major problem for them, the cooperation always goes very well. But it's really individual. We often meet, for example, scientists from abroad who are largely dealing with their projects administratively.
How has the pandemic and working from home affected the OGP and the projects?
I have to say that it has been a difficult time for everyone, and yet my colleagues in the department have handled the whole situation brilliantly. For the fact that a large number of us have children, we were all at home, assisting online teaching, cooking lunches to boot, so we were great. I didn't notice that anyone had any comments about the functioning during the lockdown. A lot of my fellow scientists were pretty much the same way because they also stayed home with their kids. We slowed things down a little bit, but I don't think it was majorly. A big thank you to everyone at CXI for the work from home and the quality of the output. We all really tried our best.
How many people does the OGP team belong to?
We're currently at 18 on the team, and converted to full-time, it's a little less. Most of the staff are full-time, but we do have a few part-time colleagues.
What will the future of OGP and your team look like?
A lot depends on the research sites and the challenges that will be open. It will also depend a lot on the concept of the Technical University. Anything can happen, but I am optimistic. I would like us, not to stand still and to increase our working competences. I would like us to be happy in OGP, to do our work with joy, because that is the alpha omega of every job in my opinion.