Star scholars shine in all skies

August 27, 1999

So compelling was the picture painted by Professor Blackburn et al about opportunities in North America for har-assed United Kingdom academics (THES, July 30) that I thought some ex-ex-pat should speak for the other side.

I am not going to argue against brain-draining. Rather, I want to put some cons with the pros and suggest an alternative strategy for ambitious but exploited young UK academics.

I am a pure mathematician who spent 23 years in North America after teaching at Cambridge for six. I returned to the UK in 1998, having spent the previous decade as R. F. Britton professor at McMaster University. I was lucky enough to be in one of Canada's top academic jobs and was well paid by virtue of a bidding battle versus the University of Rochester New York. Since I enjoy research, having two Britton postdocs and a research grant of Can$36,000 (Pounds 16,000) per year was certainly no hindrance.

Nonetheless, the attraction of family here was sufficient to tip the scales. There is more to this brain-draining than mere working conditions.

One can imagine leftist liberals lonely in Louisiana needing to high-tail it to Europe every summer. A hypothetical academic might argue that the denser the population the more exciting the intellectual environment - however, most of North America is empty.

Budget cuts occur there too. For example, three years ago Rochester tried to close its excellent mathematics department. Nervous individuals might also worry that visiting scholars are regularly murdered on photogenic Ivy League campuses.

I concur with Professor Blackburn in that UK university working conditions are comparatively poor and exploitative of beginners. But there is a huge improvement in conditions for established academic stars, young and old. Although no fan of the research assessment exercise, it has helped. Among recent UK appointments I have met several rising stars - Australian, Czech, Dutch, German, Israeli, Italian, Russian and American - who think a spell working in the UK is a viable career move.

UK vice-chancellors headhunt top researchers after the fashion of soccer managers in the transfer season. In mathematics the equivalent of the Nobel Prize is the Fields Medal. When Timothy Gowers and Richard Borcherds were (accurately) tipped for theirs in 1998, heaven and earth was moved to get them back to Cambridge.

In 1995, Andrew Wiles, assisted by Richard Taylor, solved the 350-year-old problem known as Fermat's Last Theorem. This sent someone at Cambridge University into negotiations resulting in the establishment of the Kuwait chair of number theory - presumably with one or both of their names written all over it. Currently Wiles is at Princeton and Taylor at Harvard. When the Russian prodigy, Vladimir Voevodsky, made the pure mathematical headlines All Souls College soon had him on the interview carpet.

So the stars are in heaven all right. How are the rest to manage? How does the new PhD, aspiring to making a name, avoid being side-tracked into a series of low-level posts so badly paid that even a strike-day is unaffordable? To succeed, take the advice of Professors Blackburn and Duff. Emigrate, but do it early. Do not spend 20 years growing bitter in Oxford.

Professor Duff said academic life in the United States is very competitive, so one needs a bit of a reputation as collateral, but not as much as for the Kuwait chair. There are also other countries to try. In mathematical research Europe is so lively that one NSF official sent out a distress email warning the university community that "US domination in math is under threat".

Victor Snaith Professor in the faculty of mathematical studies University of Southampton

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