07 December 2013

Dr. Higgs & The Bean Counters

The Guardian has run this sobering story about physicist Peter Higgs. Here are come of the pointed bits:
The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or even made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, was published in 1964.
He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today's academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964."
Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.
Edinburgh University's authorities then took the view, he later learned, that he "might get a Nobel prize – and if he doesn't we can always get rid of him".
Higgs said he became "an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises". A message would go around the department saying: "Please give a list of your recent publications." Higgs said: "I would send back a statement: 'None.' "
By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. "After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn't my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough."
A message would go around the department saying: "Please give a list of your recent publications." Higgs said: "I would send back a statement: 'None.' "
I recommend this to those of my friends and colleagues about to launch into a Faculty Activity Report for the bean counters in one or another College or University. Of course, you shouldn't use this to persuade yourself that but for all those distracting demands - administration, teaching and publishing bundles of literature-driven papers - you'd be a Nobel laureate. Resist self-deception. But it is a nice counter-example to those pushing the rationalization of educational institutions.

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Blogger amro said...

I am in full agreement with Professor Higgs. The requirement to churn out publications is overwhelming.

Where I worked/studied - there were one or two quite brilliant people - who were left well alone, precisely become one had been awarded a Nobel and the other was highly fancied for one.

Nowadays one had no hope of an academic job unless one has dozens of publications. This is craziness - the best people I have know have published very very little.

I suspect this kind of thing suits some subjects more than other. In physics it's a disaster. This is mostly as a consequence of the academic reforms of the Thatcher era (they abolished tenure in Britain too - can you believe it?).

10 December, 2013 14:54  

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