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I noticed that a few research centres and university departments provide a multi-year strategic plan document on their websites. For example, IIT (Italian Institute of Technology) and Stanford Computer Science Department.

The plan usually describes the main goals and purpose of the institution, both in science and in research management.

Why do they actually do it?

Is it just a way professors and researchers try to predict their future? Or is it a solid way to show their future scientific directions to the world?

What happens if the strategic plan is not respected by scientists and events during the following years?

And why so many institutes actually don't do it?

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Another reason may be funding at a large scale. Governments sometimes have plans to strengthen the research in a certain area (ex. biosciences). By making an institution-wide plan, you can make a very strong case for the funding agency and possibly secure a large amount of money. The time scale is also important. If you have money guaranteed for seven years, you can buy expensive equipment and hire experts knowing that you will not have to let them go after a year, for example.

In the particular case of Stanford I imagine their main target is private investment. The aim of the plan is then showing off a strong commitment to their objectives.

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Writing plans can be useful for a department to come together and find common goals. Putting them in writing and publishing them is way for a department and its faculty to commit to those plans. Evaluating a couple of years later to see whether the plans were actually implemented, can be good way to evaluate the last couple of years. Not implementing the plans is not necessarily bad, unpredictable things always happen. The plan can however be a good way to structure that discussion (why did we not meet our objectives? What did we do instead? Is that equally good or better than our original plan, or did we make a mistake?)

As a tool such plans can play a positive role. They can also go horribly wrong. If it is seen by the faculty as a bureaucratic waste of time, than writing it will be a waste of time. Nobody will then feel committed by that plan. Evaluating it will also be just a waste of time because nobody felt bound by that plan anyhow so what is there to evaluate. Worse, such plans can lead to lots of unproductive fights between faculty and rip a department appart.

So there are good reasons why some departments do it, and there are also good reasons why other departments avoid doing it.

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