Director’s Blog 1/11/19

Director’s Blog January 11, 2019
By Ian Billick, PhD

Former RMBL Board Member Gary Weed once noted that running a large oil company required getting just the right balance between the geologists and the finance people. If either side dominates, there are problems. The ongoing struggles at the National Ecological Observatory Network (RMBL alum Sharon Collinge recently resigned as Chief Scientist for NEON) highlight that scientists face the same challenge.
( To serve scientists both well and sustainably, RMBL has to understand what the scientists need, as well as how to create a sustainable financial model.

We strive for balance on RMBL’s Board. Balance isn’t a numbers game and it isn’t everybody talking the same amount. Balance enables getting to a collective decision that is better than what any individual, or subset of the Board, is capable of. Balance happens when board leadership frames issues effectively, ensures the board has the information it needs, and from board members putting in the time and effort to articulate their thoughts effectively. Everybody speaks English, but the same words can mean different things to people with different backgrounds. What does that balance look like at the staff level? Visits we did to successful scientific institutions revealed staff leadership teams that included science, operations, and finance. Those observations in part motivated the decision to bring in Kelly Sudderth as Chief Operating Officer. When RMBL replaces me the COO position will give RMBL flexibility for maintaining a senior staff team that can balance science, finance, and operations. We are actively thinking about ways to engage you in this balance. That involves helping interested understand RMBL’s real leverage and decision points, and the considerations driving the decisions.

We are toying with the idea of doing a series of sessions this summer on RMBL finances. These won’t be boring sessions of scrolling through numbers, but rather focused on helping scientists make finances their tool for weighing in on questions they care about. What is the right rate structure for RMBL? Should we have a two-tier system? How much and how should RMBL deploy fellowships? Why aren’t the cabins, or scientific equipment, in better shape? Would it be better to have fewer staff and lower rates?

If we end up doing these sessions, we’ll let you know. And if this sounds like something you are interested in, let me know what topics and times work best for you. We also want to hear your ideas on how we could empower you to inform decision-making!

Thanks to Aimee Classen for pointing out the article on NEON, as well as the idea for blog posts as a way of communicating with the community.