What top-flight researchers mean for the rest of us

These are scarce beasts if Alex Usher is to be believed.

In a Globe and Mail op-ed, the Higher Education Strategy Associates president estimated only 100,000 truly high-profile scholars and academic scientists exist in the world. These are not simply good academics, or even great ones, but those rare individuals who institutions fight to get (and keep). Canada’s estimated share is 3,000 or so, 10 per cent of the country’s full-time academics.

“As recently as a few decades ago,” Usher wrote, “major powers would go to war over scarce resources like this.”

“It’s a blood sport,” said John Capone, Western’s vice-president, research. “It takes a lot of fortitude, resources and determination to compete. Even then, they don’t all succeed. But you don’t want to sit back and watch the train pass you by. It’s easy to do that. But you don’t want to reach for the middle; you want to reach for the top.”

So, if these ‘superstars’ are the currency of the academic world, who exactly are they, and what do they mean for the rest of us?

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There is no one way to identify a superstar. But while academics may not have batting averages, they do have paper trails. And those often get measured and, in turn, compared.

Let’s say you define superstars by funding landed, certainly one fair way of doing so. Then the breakdown is simple.

Although it varies a bit from funding agency to funding agency, a handful of Western researchers are responsible for most of the funding. As an example, over the past decade, 1 per cent of Tri-Council grant recipients have attracted a disproportionate 13 per cent ($57 million) of funding at the university. On the flip side, nearly 90 per cent of Tri-Council recipients have attracted less than $1 million apiece over the same period.

Some may argue these figures are prejudiced against social science- and humanities-based disciplines; however, the imbalance is paralleled – or even more exaggerated – in these areas. Over the past five years, five researchers brought in 35 per cent of the university’s SSHRC funding, which is equal to the bottom 80 per cent of researchers.

The separation between The Elite and The Rest of Us is reflected in citations as well.

Michael Rouse, Richard Ivey School of Business professor in Strategy and Organization, cited an excellent example. And although the University of Alberta study, Measuring Canadian Business School Research Output and Impact (2002), focused on B-schools only, it showed a wildly skewed distribution of citation credits at the top Canadian universities.

In fact, the study sounded the alarm that “a significant portion of a school’s intellectual reputation rests upon a small number of individuals, putting these schools in a vulnerable position.”

By way of example, the study said if the top citation recipient left York University, its citation ranking would go from third to ninth. In fact, if this academic formed “a one-person university,” he/she would rank 10th – just below York.

The study admitted this is not a new phenomenon. But more attention has been focused on ‘superstars’ thanks to recent global financial turmoil and increased mobility of top talent.

Among the nine Canadian business schools studied, the top 1 per cent of citation credit recipients (25 academics) accounted for 31 per cent of all citation credits, and the top 2.7 per cent accounted for half.

At Ivey, five researchers – out of 70 – accounted for half the citation credits for the period studied. And two accounted for a quarter, alone. That distribution was as, or more, democratized than all but one university, the University of British Columbia, who had 11 researchers accounted for half its citations.

These numbers seem to support Usher’s contention that superstars are rare beasts.

Even given that, why should anyone care?

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If sluggers and CEOs come to mind when you talk academic superstars, stop thinking that way, Rouse warned. Academics are a whole different ballgame, so to speak.

In business, research suggests award-winning CEOs – the superstars of business – actually extract value from an organization, are less productive given their non-job activities post-award, and, as a result, have a negative impact on shareholder value.  It’s known as the “curse of the award-winning CEO.”  In business, Rouse explained, it is the ‘strategic leader’ that adds value, not the superstar.

Award-winning researchers, however, are a totally different category.

“Anecdotally, I know a superstar researcher attracts other research talent like faculty and students, raises the profile of the university through press coverage, academic exposure via conference presentations, citations and enhances contribution to society and legitimacy of a research organization,” Rouse said. “In the context of academic research, I think that superstars add tremendous value to their organizations.”

Context is everything when defining an academic superstar.

Given two relatively equal companies in the same industry, the one with the higher-paid CEO is seen as the stronger institution. Same with sports. If your first baseman costs $30 million per season, and mine costs the league minimum, yours is perceived to be better. It doesn’t matter if the stats back up either assumption, Rouse warned.

In highly competitive environments such as these, perception goes a long way.

The value equation for academic researchers is wildly different, Rouse said. The economy of academia is about ideas and research that have impact and how you translate that impact into citations, grants, PhD students, etc.

Superstar researchers make that easier.

“Faculty, students, grad students, they all want to come because of these people. People see the importance of the research being done. That builds the legitimacy of the institution,” Rouse said.

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“Superstars make a university’s story easy to tell those outside the walls. They show the institution can recruit and/or develop winners and showcase success in strategic decisions. They make good conversation starters.”

That was Dan Sinai, Western associate vice-president for research, who argued superstars are key in an ever-tightening funding environment.

Western approaches superstars not as a singular entity, but as individuals worth clustering around – not only from other departments within the superstar’s faculty, but from other faculties as well. Most of that has been around expressed signature research areas: neuroscience, imaging, materials, wind, sustainability, planetary science, philosophy of science and musculoskeletal health.

“If we do our job, we’ll have a cornerstone of excellence that will be known globally. So when you go out there and say ‘We’re good at neuroscience,’ people say, ‘Yeah, you are. I want to come there,’” Capone said. “That’s what it means. With the benefit of programs and foresight from governments, a directed focus from the university, and taking advantage of those opportunities, then you create your niches of strength that define areas where you are the best in the world.”

“More and more people have to work collaboratively, interdisciplinary, globally, all these things in order to be successful. You have to work outside your area,” Sinai said. “Superstars are supernovas. They attract everything around them. … It makes some people irritated, but the strategic ones are the ones who associate with the superstars, who pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, we should work on this together.’”

Not only does this strategy allow the university to align its internal funding more strategically, but makes Western far more competitive with Canadian funding agencies that have moved toward larger, cluster-type grants.

Of course, there are always drawbacks. There is no simple answer to the obvious problem Western – and all universities, for that matter – are attempting to address: How do you promote the few without penalizing the many?

But that need not be the case. In fact, if used properly, today’s superstars may cultivate the next generation of superstars.

“In some areas, we have a good system of mentoring and growing our own people,” Sinai said, citing a core group of Western mid-career people, 10-15 post-PhD, who are leaders in their field, and just may be the next generation of superstars. “It’s a combination of having a good farm system and going out and getting free agents. You have to have a mix of both.”

This deep “bench strength” buffers the university from the inevitable loss of a superstar. Given the rarity of the beast, there is constant worry about losing superstars; Western has lost a handful in recent years.

“You have to ask, ‘What happens when that person goes,’” Usher explained. “How do you build something around that individual that means something to the university? A superstar is a node on a knowledge network. You need to be plugged into that network so when that person goes, and they will go, the institution still has skin in the game of that field of knowledge. A university’s reputation is only as good as the sum of the nodes on that knowledge network.”

A recent study, Global mobility: Science on the move, published in the October 2012 edition of Nature, asked 2,300 leading global scientists about the playing field for their career.

When researchers asked which countries/regions have the greatest scientific impact today, 21 per cent said Canada, placing it sixth on the list, well behind the United States, seen by 87 per cent of respondents as the global leader. When asked which countries these same respondents predict will have the greatest impact in 2020, only 11 per cent said Canada, placing it 11th on the list, well behind China, seen by 59 per cent as the sure-fire future.

However, when asked to which countries these top scientists would consider relocating, 51 per cent said Canada, placing it second on the list, narrowly behind the United States at 56 per cent.

Canada had the second-highest proportion of foreign scientists working in country of the 16 countries studied; 47 per cent of Canadian scientists were from elsewhere. Only Switzerland – at 57 per cent – had more foreign-born scientists working in country.

Of Canadian-born scientists, only 24 per cent were working outside Canada. And when these Canadian scientists leave, 70 per cent head to the United States.

But be they recruited away, retire or pass away, that’s where depth comes into play. If a superstar steps aside, is someone ready to step up?

A lot of the pressure for answering that question falls on deans. So, how much does superstar mentality play in their hires?

Listen to Michael Strong, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

“Attracting a superstar has a major impact on a faculty, particularly when the individual is recruited to drive the development of a research focus. Almost always, such an individual will bring a team of researchers with them, in which case, they also lead to a greatly enhanced level of graduate and post-graduate student interest. The researcher can also serve to be a nidus around which a program will coalesce. From the external view, such a recruitment is also a very robust marker of just how good a program is – in the absence of a solid base, no researcher of that stature will simply relocate.

“The less tangible impact though is on the morale of the whole system. Everyone is working incredibly hard these days in a very tight funding milieu. Sometimes it is easy to forget that en masse we are moving forward; the ability to recruit such a star impacts this.”

Brian Timney, Social Science dean, nodded to ‘the buzz’ created by superstars.

“You do get many more high-quality students – mainly postdocs and graduate students – applying because of that superstar. It also helps in recruiting faculty. We may not always be able to compete with some institutions moneywise, but having a superstar among a team of researchers makes the whole package far more attractive.”

Yes, that spotlight shines a little brighter.

“There’s a spinoff when it comes to these superstars. When the media recognize someone, they also may go talk to other people who aren’t yet the superstar. Having that superstar in place, then the media sometimes start looking elsewhere at other people and their research,” he said.

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Like it or not, the superstar mentality isn’t going away any time soon, Usher said. So we had best be ready to play for keeps.

“Canadian universities should be out there picking up disaffected academics. We should have had people, say, going around California universities dropping off leaflets. That is the best university system in the world, but it’s having issues. French universities are having a problem; Spanish universities are as well. As a country, we’re a bit timid about our position. We could be more aggressive,” Usher said.

“If we had been taking that approach the last two or three years, we would be in better position today.”