Pleasures of poaching

February 19, 2009

As an American physicist who has worked in Sydney and now Cambridge for nearly 20 years, I found some irony in the close juxtaposition of the insightful opinion piece by Alan Ryan of the University of Oxford ("The wrong sort of society", 5 February) on social mobility in the UK and a longer article on "poaching" of talented faculty members by elite UK universities ("Poachers eye rich pickings amid RAE's pockets of excellence", 12 February).

What you call "poaching" is in fact regarded in most countries as social and economic mobility. And it need not be a one-way flow. The only real fun a dean at a typical state university in the US has is poaching a top professor from Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This is done by paying him/her more money. Old-fashioned and very effective. The result is generally better for the academic and makes the university system competitive and ensures higher salaries.

The UK would be better if it had merit-based hiring. That includes hiring foreigners - poaching should not be limited to other UK institutes. At my university you are far more likely to be hired as a lecturer or professor if you have been here since the age of 17 and are mediocre, than if you win science prizes but are from Japan, France, Russia or the US. Legacy-based hiring still trumps merit-based hiring. And, oh yes, you'll wind up in Trinity College or St John's and not Girton (or without a college at all). It worked in the 19th century, but it isn't going to win Nobel prizes in the 21st.

J.F. Scott, University of Cambridge.

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