Research stars like talent by their side

December 2, 2005

Anna Fazackerley looks at a trend for academics to travel in teams to new posts

Most universities cannot lure research stars by offering super-size salaries, not least because it would not look good in their annual report.

But giving jobs to the academics they work alongside can make their package more tempting.

Alexander Acland, who heads higher education recruitment at Odgers Ray and Berndtson, said: "It's about making the academic's life as easy as possible. Money buys you freedom. If you've got five fantastic PhD students or postdocs coming with you, you can relax a bit."

Tony Minson, pro vice-chancellor for planning and resources at Cambridge University, said that this sort of large-scale recruitment had become par for the course for universities such as his. He said: "Due to the calibre of the scientists we recruit, it is inevitable that they would have research teams and substantial funding behind them. If they have teams they want to bring with them, we facilitate that."

But if poaching one person from a different institution - and possibly even a different country - can be complicated, then negotiating a move for an entire team can cause a major institutional headache.

Each researcher transferred may have to uproot a partner or family. And the institution will have to find lab and office space for everyone it takes on.

Imogen Wilde, director of education services at headhunter Norman Broadbent, recently approached a research group leader about a position at another university. "He wanted to know if there would be sufficient accommodation for him to bring a team of as many as 15 people with him,"

she said.

She added that accommodation did not mean only lab or desk space - scientists in fields such as genetics might also need cages for hundreds of animals that they have been working with.

"Issues that can arise if someone wants to bring postgrads or postdocs with them also include whether those researchers are on scholarships that were awarded to the university.

"If that is the case, it is likely to be very difficult for the team leader to transfer the funding."

The sudden loss of an entire research group, particularly a high-profile one, is a major blow to any institution.

Michael Driscoll, chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, warned that such activity could seriously damage non-research-intensive universities that were trying to forge ahead in niche areas of research.

He said: "It could risk polarising the sector even further in terms of concentrating the research in fewer universities. And as the major research institutions win more money from the research assessment exercise, they can use the funding to attract more staff away."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

PACKAGE DEALS

  • Cambridge tempted Austin Smith and his team of stem-cell researchers from Edinburgh University
  • Eleven applied vision scientists were lured to Loughborough University from Derby University
  • When Robert Lechler left Imperial College London to be vice-principal for health at King's College London, he brought eight staff with him
  • King's tempted Richard Beecham, professor of digital culture, along with his whole research team from Warwick University
  • Ian Manners, professor of inorganic and materials chemistry, brought a team of six people with him to Bristol University from Toronto University
  • Alistair Hetherington, professor of plant cell physiology, will bring his team of five to Bristol with him from Lancaster University next year
  • Kai Zacharowski, professor of cardiovascular anaesthesia, will bring his team of six to Bristol from Dusseldorf in Germany.

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