Friday, September 28, 2012

Moneyball in academia?

I watched the movie Moneyball with my family. There was a scene which reminded me of a number of conversations I have had over the years concerning hiring young faculty. The scene features in the trailer below. Billy Beane [Brad Pitt], general manager of the Oakland As major league baseball team is sitting at a table with the club scouts and they are discussing which players to recruit, particularly because they just lost a couple of star players.

The scene highlights how they use arbitrary subjective criteria to endorse or dismiss particular players. ["He has an ugly girlfriend and so must lack self-confidence"!]

How is this like academia?
Unfortunately, the same thing can happen. People can get very emotional and subjective, like in the movie. Over the years, colleagues from a range of institutions have told me how they (or their department) desperately want to hire a particular individual and will "mortgage the farm" to do it.
But, is the individual really worth it? I can remember specific cases over the past 15 years where this has not proven to be the case. In fact, in some cases the individuals concerned are not even doing science any more.

Is the solution using metrics to evaluate potential performance, as in the baseball movie?
No, but it is important to acknowledge that it is fairly difficult to predict future performance. Billy Beane makes that point about himself. He was the high school graduate everyone wanted. But, he flopped in major league baseball.

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