Recruiting or academic poaching?

poaching talent

Credit: Yuoak / iStockphoto

In the past 5 years, 80 of the nation’s top cancer researchers have moved their labs from leading universities across the country to institutions in Texas. Prompting the migration has been $250 million in state money, provided by the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, reports Paul Basken at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Established by an amendment to the state constitution that Texas voters approved in 2007 and funded by $3 billion in state bonds, the institute has the “mission to attract and expand the state’s research capabilities and create high quality new jobs in Texas,” according to its website.

“At a time when American research universities face growing financial pressure, driven largely by cuts in federal and state financing, Texas stands as something of an anomaly—and, perhaps, a role model,” Basken writes. “By laying out millions of dollars to lure premier cancer scientists from other universities across the country, the state is drawing criticism and skepticism as well as envy and emulation. Some embrace the practice as recruiting; others deride it as poaching.”

A number of states see poaching star faculty members as a way of raising the stature of their universities and boosting their state economies.

To lure researchers from the likes of Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rockefeller University to the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, and elsewhere across the Lone Star state, Texas uses the time-honored tactic of offering top prospects lucrative financial packages, some of which reach $10 million, Basken reports.

Texas has been particularly successful at attracting top researchers, but it is hardly the only state attempting to do so. A number of states see poaching star faculty members as a way of raising the stature of their universities and boosting their state economies. According to analyses cited by Basken, for every dollar a state invests, research can produce between $5 and $7.50 in economic benefit.

On the other side of the coin, though, poaching inflicts significant costs on many universities, especially public institutions struggling with financial stringency, that lose researchers. One common repercussion is that institutions lose their former researchers’ grants, which provide substantial funds to help cover institutions’ costs for providing research infrastructure. But this practice may not remain the standard for long. As Basken notes in another Chronicle article, “a longstanding gentlemen’s agreement” among universities has allowed researchers moving to other institutions to take their grants with them, but “[n]ow, with universities counting every dollar, that bit of protocol may become a quaint courtesy of days gone by.”

When the University of Southern California (USC), for example, recently recruited neuroscientist Paul Aisen from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), it expected him to bring the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS), which he heads, along with its $55 million in National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant support, to his new academic home. However, as Basken notes, “under NIH rules, grants are awarded to institutions, not individuals,” and UCSD balked at letting such a sizable grant leave its campus. UCSD took the relatively rare step of suing USC, along with Aisen and eight researchers who moved with him. UCSD accused USC of “engag[ing] in months of negotiations with Dr. Aisen as if the ADCS were Dr. Aisen’s personal property, without any attempt to communicate with UC-San Diego in advance,” says Gary S. Firestein, associate vice chancellor and dean of translational medicine at UCSD, as quoted by Basken.

Beyond the losses to the institutions when research stars leave, critics also note that although the practice of moving established researchers from one institution to another can raise a university’s relative standing, it does little to advance science or develop the careers of talented young researchers. Instead, it simply drives up the cost of hiring those already in demand. The hefty price tags for established stars tend to concentrate resources in a few senior investigators—resources that might otherwise support a number of promising younger researchers, many of whom are struggling to establish careers. USC, for example, reportedly offered Aisen a salary of $500,000 a year as part of the deal to make the move from UCSD. 

Universities are not the only scientific organizations dealing with poaching. In Silicon Valley, a number of major companies allegedly limited poaching of their employees—and the attendant upward pressure on pay that it would produce—by making agreements that they would not try to recruit workers from one another. In May 2011, a software engineer brought a class action lawsuit against tech giants Adobe, Google, Apple, Intuit, Intel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm for “violations of antitrust laws by conspiring to fix and restrict the pay of their employees and entering into ‘no solicitation’ agreements with each other,” according to the Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein law firm. (No relation to this reporter.) Other employees later joined the case as plaintiffs. In 2013, Intuit, Lucasfilm, and Pixar settled with the plaintiffs for $20 million. In March 2015, a $415 million settlement by Apple, Google, Intel, and Adobe received preliminary court approval. A final hearing on the settlement took place on 9 July and a decision is pending. Though “[e]ach of the Defendants denies that it violated any laws or engaged in any wrongdoing,” according to the settlement website, they have agreed not to engage in anticompetitive practices.

So, though some universities and companies may not like it, U.S. antitrust law clearly protects the right of employers to hire workers away from competing organizations and of workers (at least those not tied to employers by restrictive guest worker visas) to change jobs and sell their services to the highest bidder. Poaching therefore serves the interests of ambitious and well-financed universities and of star researchers alike, if not, ultimately, of less established researchers and science at large.

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