What difference does it make to me, a faculty in a physics department at a solid, respectable, medium size research university, if my departmental colleagues are successful or not ? Why should I care if they achieve important scientific results, win prizes, receive invitations to speak at prominent conferences, publish on high impact journals, establish research groups that come to be known worldwide ? Why should I get into arguments with my colleagues, when it comes to hiring another one of us, if I believe that the department may be about to bring on someone unlikely to make himself or herself known the to greater scientific community ?
Should I not simply worry that my colleagues, whoever they be, just do their fair share of teaching and service and not disturb me in any way ? After all, don’t my own fortunes depend on me, not on them ? Should collegiality, i.e., whether these are “nice people”, “people I can have a beer with”, be an important hiring criterion ?
Being in a department that enjoys some international prominence as a result of the achievements of its faculty, benefits all of them in a number of ways. Primarily, it puts the department on the map, which in turn means that potential undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral associates, faculty and even administrators, as well as grant reviewers will be more inclined to give it and its faculty due consideration, when it comes to making professional or academic decisions.
The idea that, for instance, the decision of a potential doctoral student of coming to University of Alberta for his/her own physics graduate studies, will depend exclusively or largely on whether (s)he can identify a single suitable PhD advisor in the physics department (and possibly on the graduate stipend), is naive and off the mark, I think. Students understand that their graduate experience will not merely amount to their interaction with that one person; they know that, all things being equal, a department with a lot of well-known faculty, active in many different research areas, attracting smart students and postdocs and regularly hosting famous visitors from all over the world, will make a more exciting and intellectually stimulating place to be.
They also fully understand the importance of reputation; the sticker that faculty and graduates of a university carry with them (in the case of students, for the rest of their lives), affects in many different ways their ability to succeed professionally, including (and perhaps especially) outside academia.
The same is true for a faculty submitting a grant proposal. It is simply wrong to assume that a program director will base the decision of funding it exclusively, or mainly, on the scientific record of the applicant and his/her own individual accomplishments, in disregard for the environment in which the person operates. A program director (and grant reviewers) will normally express skepticism, if the proposal seems too ambitious for the type of human resources on which the investigators can count. If the department at which they are is small in size, does not have a large graduate program and only a modest postdoctoral presence, and most of its faculty are not active in research, this will inevitably make a difference in what can be realistically accomplished by anyone seeking funding. For example, the investigator may not be able to engage graduate students or postdocs easily in his/her research, for the simple fact that there may not be any available, and any program director knows what a huge difference graduate students and postdocs make.
This is why I think I should care whether my colleagues, regardless of their research area, are well-known, respected researchers — don’t get me wrong, if they are “nice people” too, so much the better, but that ought not be an important consideration upon which to base hiring choices. Their success and visibility will generate interest for the place, increase human circulation and promote intellectual exchange, which eventually will trickle down to me. A potential graduate student or postdoc considering to come and work with me will be more inclined to make that decision knowing that they are joining a department that enjoys a strong international reputation. A grant reviewer will be more amicable toward me, if (s)he knows that my department is a place where many good people do good research.
I do not care to be a big fish in a small pond — in science, that is a losing mentality. To use a soccer analogy (I love those), I would much rather be playing major league, even if it means fighting relegation all the time.