Academic inbreeding in the UK…checking our assumptions

Posted: January 10, 2012 in Academia, UK Academia

Since coming to the UK I’ve noticed that there is a considerably higher level of academic inbreeding here than I’ve seen in any of the institutions I’ve been at in the US. For example, at my present institution in the UK there are about 4 or 5 faculty members who got their PhD here, did a postdoc here and are now faculty members. Several of them did not even postdoc anywhere else before obtaining the faculty position.

In addition, there are several postdocs here that have been at the institution (and sometimes the same research group!) since they were undergrads. Indeed, the large majority of graduate students were also undergrads here, and as best I can tell this is common practice in the UK. This is in stark contrast to my experience in some departments in the US where they have a hard and fast rule against accepting undergrads from the same institution into their graduate program.

Thus, coming from a research environment in which academic inbreeding is discussed as if it is a scourge rising from the very depths of ineptitude ready to pull science into the pit of irrelevance, I find it odd that this practice is so rife here in the UK.  Such an observation, of course, causes my American arrogance to kick in and I say to myself “well of course things are just a little backwards on the other side of the pond, I mean, it’s not America and all!”. Well, I need to chickity check myself befo’ I wreck myself on this assumption, as that wonderful attitude is simply not supported by the facts. A recent bit of analysis reported on in Science suggests that the US has fallen to THIRD in the world with respect to citations per paper, behind the UK and Germany:

Marshall & Travis (2011), Science, 334 (6055): 433. Reprinted without permission...biatch!

Thus, clearly academic inbreeding is not having the monumental effect on productivity and impact as I (and others?) were led to believe. In fact, it may very well be beneficial! Now, this is not to say there are not many other factors involved here, as undoubtedly there are. Nonetheless, it suggests that inbreeding really might not be so bad after all…so that cousin you’ve been eyein’ since you was a youngin’…go ahead and give ’em a kiss, it won’t turn out so bad…your papers might even get cited more…

  1. […] best I could tell, the search committee was made up almost entirely of very senior faculty members (which is probably how they keep the inbreeding going so strong), which is a bit odd seeing as the junior faculty members are the one’s that are going to […]

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