Elite stump up millions in hunt for research stars

July 9, 2004

Nottingham
There has been a "step change" in top academic salaries at Nottingham University, partly in response to the recruitment market becoming increasingly competitive, according to Keith Jones, the registrar. Annual salaries for professorships at Nottingham now range from £50,000 to £100,000.

"This is partly driven by the onset of the next research assessment exercise," Mr Jones said, "but also by the general sense that a number of new global players are emerging in countries such as Australia, China and Singapore."

Nottingham has become a big player in the brain-gain game. In the past year, it has appointed 73 new professors; it is in the process of finding eight others.

The appointments will leave Nottingham with about 25 per cent more chairs than last year. Its roll call of about 400 professors dwarfs Oxford University's 188 and is creeping up on Cambridge's 457.

This expansion in intellectual capital is driven by a strategic vision to put Nottingham among the world's top 50 broad-based research-led institutions and by the ambitions of its schools.

Last September, the university launched a £12 million campaign to fill 20 new chairs with established or rising research stars. So far, it has found all but eight.

Extensive building programmes and a 40 per cent growth in student numbers over the past five years have prompted recruitment drives from schools working in consultation with central administration. These have allowed another 28 chairs to be filled from outside. Internal promotions have added 33 professors.

Don Grierson, pro vice-chancellor for research, said: "Part of the challenge is not just competition for staff, it's the fact that you have to be prepared to spend several million on research backup in the form of infrastructure and support staff. If you can afford to do that, then you can compete."

Professor Grierson said: "We do not have a simple doctrine. We are after people who are internationally known or are rising stars."

But he admitted that many of the disciplines in which Nottingham was recruiting were relatively new areas, such as bioinformatics, where the "stars" were more likely to be young and mobile.

He said: "It is unlikely that a 70-year-old would be outstanding in one of these emerging fields. But if we found them, we would appoint them."

Nottingham aims to improve on its last research ratings, in which 26 of its departments scored 5 or 5*.

But Professor Grierson insisted that the recruitment and quality drive was not all about the RAE:"It is more about how we want to develop and what we want to do to attract the best students and staff. It so happens that since doing well in research is a key part of that, we expect to do well in the next RAE."
- Tony Tysome

Tomas Paus: it's a can-do place
Nottingham University's reputation and vision encouraged Tomas Paus, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at McGill University, in Montreal, to take one of its chairs.

Nottingham's record in magnetic resonance imaging has developed over many years with Nobel prizewinner Sir Peter Mansfield at the helm of MRI research.

And the can-do attitude of senior managers, who shared his enthusiasm for setting up a multidisciplinary Centre for Brain and Body Development, persuaded Professor Paus to take the job.

Since arriving in Montreal from the Czech Republic 14 years ago, Professor Paus has helped set up a network of researchers across five Canadian universities looking into the effects of smoking on adolescents' brains and bodies.

Professor Paus will become professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at Nottingham. He plans to build a team for the Brain and Body Development Centre that will include five other professors running their own laboratories but with shared research goals.

Professor Paus, 43, will bring with him a small team. He will also be accompanied by his senior research partner and wife, Zdenka. He said: "She is the second senior member of my team, so though it seems like a sensitive issue, it was obvious I needed her to join me."

Royal Holloway
The £4 million recruitment drive at Royal Holloway, University of London, was launched early to pre-empt similar exercises by other universities and maximise the chances of luring the best academic talent to the leafy outskirts of southwest London.

In an advertisement in The Times Higher on December 19, 2003 the university listed new research-led roles - 14 professorships and 13 reader/senior lecturer posts - as part of a "major strategic investment".

Stephen Hill, the principal, who joined from the London School of Economics in September 2002, said: "Advertising posts appeared as a big hit and gave a strong signal to candidates that we were continuing to expand and were looking for the best people."

Holloway did not have to try too hard to solicit candidates. A number of academic high-flyers applied and more than one appointment has been made for some positions, bringing the total number of appointments to 34.

For example, two "superb" applicants for a professorship in biological sciences meant an additional post was created. For a lectureship in the same field, there were more than 200 applications.

The appointments have increased the number of professors by 15 per cent, with a 6 per cent rise in the number of other academics.

Most new staff come from the UK, with a small number from overseas including the US, Germany and Australia. The average age of professional appointments is 45, compared with an average of 52 years for existing professors. Most of the recruits are in their early 40s.

The principal was particularly pleased to be able to recruit in the sciences, to complement the university's traditional strengths in the arts and humanities.

The number of talented postgraduate students at the institution was a further attraction for many academics, along with its location on one campus, according to Professor Hill. That can foster better working relationships with colleagues in other departments.

The £4 million set aside for the positions came from a financial surplus rather than reserves, he said. But most of the recruits were expected to in effect pay for themselves in time by attracting more postgraduate students and research income.

A candidate bringing research funding with them was a "nice bonus". "A record of getting funding is important because it tells us they are good, but it's not a requirement," Professor Hill said.

Royal Holloway was among the best performers in the previous research assessment exercise, and more than 85 per cent of its academics work in departments with 5 or 5* ratings.

But Andrew Wathey, the vice-principal, said: "These appointments will effect a genuine step change in our research output; it goes beyond the next RAE."

Being part of the University of London was an important factor for others, Professor Wathey added. It had become a less centralist institution in recent years while retaining its emphasis on common approaches.
- Chris Johnston

Nicholas Cook: it's 'a bigger arena'

Nicholas Cook, one of the country's top musicologists, is among the recruits joining Royal Holloway, University of London. Professor Cook, who was previously at Southampton University, edits the Journal of the Royal Musical Association and chaired the music panel for the research assessment exercise in 2001.

After 12 years, he felt it was time for a change. The lure of joining what Professor Cook said was one of the country's top music departments - it earned a 5* in the previous RAE - as well as becoming a University of London professor ("it's like two jobs in one"), was too great a temptation to pass up.

But the arts and humanities strengths of Royal Holloway, compared with Southampton's emphasis on science and technology, was crucial. "You just feel far more central to the enterprise here," Professor Cook explained.

Working for an institution in the capital has considerable benefits, in his view. "I felt that by moving to London there was a bigger arena in which to operate. At a provincial university it is difficult to move on, and I felt I had achieved what I could there."

Professor Cook brought with him a new £1 million Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board. It also involves Sheffield University and King's College London.

While the centre would have worked well at Southampton, he believes the potential to collaborate with other music academics is greater in London.

Royal Holloway also has a partnership with the Royal College of Music.

The only downside to moving to Royal Holloway, Professor Cook said, was a longer drive to work from his home in Salisbury.

Professor Cook has taught at the universities of Hong Kong and Sydney, with visiting professorships at Yale in 1994 and Ohio State in 2000.

He holds degrees in music and history, and much of his work is interdisciplinary. His journal articles cover diverse topics such as Beethoven, music in television commercials and the aesthetics and psychology of music.

His books include Music, Imagination and Culture (1990).

Aberdeen
Aberdeen University sought nominations - and applications - when it unveiled a £9 million campaign to hire more than 200 staff of "outstanding intellectual quality" over the next three years in a full-page advertisement in The Times Higher in September 2003.

Bryan MacGregor, the vice-principal, said: "We are asking not just senior members of disciplines but junior members who we would like to have at this university."

Cold calling has resulted in some rebuffs, but there are signs of a growing international awareness of Aberdeen's headhunting. The university hopes for a snowball effect, with it being seen as increasingly attractive.

The scheme is not an expansion but rather a restructuring, with the university seeking some 80 redundancies. C. Duncan Rice, the principal, predicts staff numbers will ultimately be slightly smaller.

"There will be a new shape to the university's portfolio. Areas in which universities are strong and weak change all the time," he said.

There is no set proportion of professorial appointments. "We will be making decisions as we go along. In some cases, we won't be able to decide whether somebody should be a professor until we talk to them," Professor Rice said.

So far, 14 professors have been recruited, and a number of others are discussing terms. The new recruits are understood to come from the US, Germany and New Zealand as well as from the UK.

Professor MacGregor said that in the College of Arts and Social Sciences, which he heads, appointees range in age from their early 30s to late 50s.

"We are going for quality. We are looking for rising stars and established players and have appointed both," he said. "What the principal has done is encourage everyone to raise their sights. We should be aiming to appoint people who are better than us and shouldn't be frightened of that."

Equally important was retaining excellent staff, and ten internal appointments have also been made, he said.

The research assessment exercise is undoubtedly a driver, but Professor Rice stressed it was not the only one. "Even if we had no RAE, making Aberdeen's intellectual community as exciting as possible is an end in itself. It's a wonderful virtuous cycle because it gets more good staff and students."
- Olga Wojtas


Derek Hughes: 'Visionary' head

The Times Higher caught up with Derek Hughes at Leamington Spa's municipal dump as he tackled some house clearing before leaving Warwick University after 32 years.

"The sense of doing something new and helping an exciting project outweighs any sense of regret at leaving," he said. "Aberdeen is being aggressively developed by a visionary principal."

Professor Hughes is moving from a chair in English and comparative literature at Warwick to a post that will include directing the university's Interdisciplinary Centre for Early Modern Studies, which is unique in the UK in its scope and remit.

Aberdeen's English department was "trembling on the edge" of a 5 rating in the previous research assessment exercise, Professor Hughes said, and was now aiming for a 5*.

Professor Hughes underwent a thorough inspection before being appointed, culminating in an hour's interview with the principal.

He said: "He gave me a searching academic interview. I was very impressed.

This is someone who's intellectually and academically engaged in the work of the university as well as pulling the levers."

He was tight-lipped about his salary, but conceded that moving job normally meant a pay rise.

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