Academies and academia

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What connects the European Championships, PPE and ventilators, the academic career ladder, and scientific illiteracy?

The eyes of the world – or much of Europe, at least – are currently on the European Championships. It’s been a heady time for England fans, as their team has not only looked competitive but on Saturday beat Germany 2-0 – a result that marks their first win in a tournament knockout fixture against their traditional nemeses for 55 (fifty five!) years.

It’s no secret that the England national football team has not been a force in the international game for a long time, maybe not even since 1990 (overlooking the sweet delirium of ’96 that was played on home soil). This has always juxtaposed uncomfortably with the English Premier League being the richest and most popular sports league in the world – why hasn’t such a league been producing a great national team?

The answer, perhaps, lay for many years in the trend for buying in talent. The astronomical riches that came to the Premier League teams from lucrative TV deals made it simple and affordable to bring in talent from abroad.

In sport, as in so many of life’s arenas, you can get success two ways – buy it, or develop it. You either get together a ton of money and purchase a load of star names, or you can invest in young players and develop them. Buying in talent is quicker and easier if you have the resources; nurturing it is harder and more time-consuming, but much more cost-effective. Flush with their TV deals cash and aware of the need to keep spending in order to keep up with their domestic rivals, English football clubs chose the first option.

The problem for the England national side is that this almighty influx of star names and hot prospects into the Premier League decreased the player pool for the national side. A mere 5 years after Euro ’96, and less than 10 years since the Premier League’s inception, the national side was already becoming alarmingly threadbare in terms of standout international-quality players.

This trend was not mirrored on the continent. Germany, Spain, Italy, France…all the other European football powers have had flourishing academies producing a steady stream of nationally-qualified young prospects. In fact, there remains genuine discontent in Germany that Bayern Munich’s domestic dominance has not led to them contributing a similarly disproportionate number of players to the national side. There remains an expectation that the top national side should also be standard bearers for the national team, much in the way that Barcelona was for Spain in their pomp.

Around ten years ago, a concerted effort to reverse that trend began in England – and as of 2021, the academies now appear to be bringing out a string of young England-qualified players and even sides like Chelsea and Man City, reviled in the past for simply buying success, are now producing home-grown stars like Mason Mount and Phil Foden. The national team, unsurprisingly, is reaping the benefits.

In a similar way, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shone a light on how the relentless pursuit of profit in the commercial sector has led to the disembowelment of local manufacturing bases. Outsourcing production to lower-wage economies has engendered a reliance on imported products – something that became downright harmful in the degree of its over-reliance (think ventilators, PPE) once the pandemic hit. The pursuit of greater profits and lower costs produced a race to the bottom, and the mutually assured destruction of production bases.

Both football and, belatedly, manufacturing are learning the same lesson: profit is good, but you need domestic production to some degree.

In science, the penny hasn’t quite dropped just yet.

US academia in particular has long depended on being a magnet for overseas talent, compensating perhaps for the proportionally low performance of American schoolchildren compared with their international peers. More broadly, the pandemic has illustrated how dangerous misinformation can be when it is injected into the bloodstream of national discourse in populaces that are not scientifically literate. The scientific health of countries will depend on them not just buying in talent, but investing in their own youth. Simply buying in star performers incurs a dependency for steady supply, and the flow of supplies can dwindle or sometimes reverse its course. What’s needed now is a commitment to not just attracting big names from outside but ensuring a broader production base for the future.

Invest in youth, just as football does, and – like the England side – we’ll all reap the benefits.

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