Forgive my little excursion into mathematical logic, which the geeky me really loves.
The title is a concise statement of what I believe to be true: a necessary condition to be an academic is to have political skills. If you think this is not true, let me rephrase: an equivalent statement can be obtained by negating the statement above, i.e.
NOT Politician => NOT Academic
In other words, if you have no political skills, your chances of getting a position and thriving as a tenure-track and later tenured faculty are, well, zilch.
This post has been inspired by several things I have been reading on different blogs, which collectively ask the following questions: Is it enough for an academic to be technically brilliant? Should he/she have political skills and to what extent are these allowed to matter in academic advancement?
I am not a social or political scientist, or a legislator by any stretch. I am a STEM faculty, a scientist, so when I talk about "political skills" I assume "political skills in academia", primarily from my experience and the experience of my colleagues and collaborators in STEM fields, although I am quite sure many aspects hold quite broadly. So let me start by defininig (dangerously loosely) political skills in academia as the abilities to assess the balance of power and the hierarchy in your institution, to understand what motivates other people, what their agendas are, where their loyalties lie, and to work within those constraints and the constraints of the broader academic system to advance your own academic interests. All of the highly successful scientists I know are very good academic politicians: they are technically excellent AND they take full advantage of the interpersonal relationships and the institutional structure to advance their professional agendas.
Having political skills does not imply that you are dishonest or manipulative. Here are a few examples from everyday life of a scientist:
a) You cultivate a relationship with a funding program manager. As an example I am familiar with, let us take DOD agencies, where you and the PM really have to get to know each other. Your agenda is getting funding, the PM's agenda is to find the best people to do the work for his program. By listening to what the PM needs you can adjust your immediate proposal goals so that you come up with a proposal that fits very well with the program; it's a win-win situation for both. The opposite, politically unsavvy scenario (believe me, I have seen it many times) would be complaining how nobody wants to fund what you want to do, without exploring what people actually want to fund.
b) Getting a stellar candidate in your area hired. Most tenure-track applicants don't realize how much intradepartmental politics shapes the outcome of faculty searches. For example, the college will allow only 1 hire and often it happens that two subareas have a stellar candidate. So who gets the candidate? Do the subareas join forces and go to call in favors with the Dean, Provost, or work out a different tenure home for one of the candidates? Does one of the candidates get dropped? These are all possible outcomes, depending on the fine balance of power within your department, the department's relationship to the college, and the college's standing within the university.
c) You need lab space, as does Prof Labhog. Who gets it? It depends on your seniority, Labhog's seniority, how much each of you is liked by Department Chair or the person(s) who has Chair's ear. There are things that can tip the scale in your favor (e.g., you are a junior faculty and need to start up your research program) or in Labhog's favor (e.g., he just received a ginormous grant and needs the lab for the new project). How everything plays out depends on your and Labhog's political skills.
These are all real scenarios where no malice is involved. Doing science requires infrastructure, financial and human resources, administrative support, and time, and everyone is fighting over limited supplies of each. Pretending these don't matter is naive, in academia or life for that matter. Being able to form alliances over certain common interests (e.g., all faculty in one subarea want to hire candidate RisingStar) and disband and form others over other interests (e.g., while Labhog and you are on the same team to bring RisingStar, you clash on labspace, while Prof Supportive is behind your case on this one) is part of the job.
You have to be clear about your loyalties and your interests, and savvy about assessing those of others.
Another aspect of the issue of politics in academia has recently been debated quite hotly in the context of spousal hires. Many people object to positions being created for a spousal hire, and that perhaps if such a position is created there should be other people interviewed for it too. However, the number of positions is not an instantaneous quantity: there are long-term strategic goals of departments and colleges, and perhaps such a position was not a high priority at that particular point in time, however, the fact that there is an excellent primary hire and a spousal that would be a good fit for the position, the position get elevated priority -- but only in the context of the spousal hire; otherwise, the resources would not be dispensed on that position at that time.
Here's a related anecdote: a colleague of mine's spouse was a prospective spousal hire in another department several years ago. However, the spouse did not get hired over a strong opposition form a faculty who sensed competition and lobbied against the hire. So the spouse took a job at a university several hours away, did a smashing job and received early tenure; in the meantime, some college administration changed, and the now tenured spouse with a phenomenal record was brought to the university, with the climate now much more accepting. None of this would have happened without several layers of administration working together.
People ask the question whether anything but the technical skill is relevant, isn't academia supposed to be a meritocracy? I believe technical prowess is necessary for success in academia, but merit is not narrowly defined as technical excellence: a person who is oblivious to how the institution works cannot be successful. A rare lone genius who can shun the institution and still achieve great fame ia usually a remnant of time bygone. Superstars rarely go in the lab, but they manage students and postdocs and bring in a lot of funding, none of which can be done successfully without political skills. Should we not try to hire superstars, because their lab skills are probably rusty? Of course not. Because their political savvy enables the science to be done. Just like Congress enables the vast majority of scientific enterprise to be funded. Politics, from lab-scale to national, greases the wheels of science.
Academics are people, and political skills matter in all human interactions. Political skills are not the same as people skills, although having great people skills (which scientists stereotypically don't) doesn't hurt. Being able to understand what motivates each one of your staff and work with that is essential in having a productive group. I believe political savvy can and should be acquired through training, and should be an inherent part of PhD and postdoctoral experience. For instance, students/postdocs should know who the heavy-hitters in the field are, where the field is moving to and who the new stars are, as well as where the emerging sources of funding are. We as faculty can share the experience and best practices not only in lab techniques, but also in how to market oneself and how to advocate for oneself. Such skills would enable junior researchers to see the world of academia for what it is, a wonderful enterprise where challenging questions that benefit humankind get to be answered , but where ultimately bills have to be paid, and favors have to be exchanged, and strings have to be pulled. This complexity does not make science any less fascinating, just more real.