Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

Disincentivizing Dissent, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

One of the oddest things things about the tenure debate in America is that it completely ignores the clear comparison-condition: Britain. For a couple decades, Britain has not had tenure for most academics, who  are now on "permanent" contracts that can be terminated at department heads' discretion at any time. The result? Not an explosion of creativity.

I have had the opportunity of being faculty in both the USA and Britain, and the things I saw at a top university in England were chilling.

For example, one mid-career faculty member (Senior Lecturer) was given ultimatums that she had to change her research area to a more mainstream area or she would be fired (she did change); another was fired from his university for publishing too many books explaining science to the general public. Beam writes that American tenure disincentivizes junior researchers from do groundbreaking research, but why does giving academic freedom to *no one* improve incentives for anyone?

One lesser-known dimension of academic is participating in emerging research areas that most people have never heard of. This freedom is not as newsworthy as the freedom to say things that the powers that be don't want to hear, but it may be just as important for a country's long-term scientific health. Pick an arbitrary research area that has emerged in the last 5-10 years, and which is not known by the public. You'll find that the UK is almost invariably badly underrepresented, compared to smaller countries with true tenure (Canada and Spain, for example).

The reward of tenure is a major incentive for faculty. Top academics have a choice of what country they want to work in. I've gotten offers in Germany, Australia, and Ireland, for instance, and I'm still quite junior. Why would a top scientist choose a job without security when most countries maintain tenure? Getting rid of tenure will lose superstars and leadership in emerging areas. It's probably the most powerful step that America could take to make sure it loses its scientific leadership.