Science is not well paid. In some ways, this is a curious finding. Science has a considerable impact on society, and can transform an economy. Applied science is the backbone of technological societies. One “breakthrough” finding can leave previous technologies in the dust. A succession of “build-through” findings contribute to long term economic progress. “Build-through” is a word I have made up to describe what usually happens in scientific progress. One researcher builds upon the work of another, and eventually the body of knowledge builds up so that it pushes through a set of barriers. Cancer researchers have been looking for a breakthrough for fifty years. Meantime, they have built up a body of knowledge which has improved cancer survival rates in most cancers. Cars have been improved continuously since 1885, and science has played a large part in that process. There have been no breakthroughs. It is still the same internal combustion engine.
Science is difficult, and takes a long time to learn. A scientist probably isn’t in a position to publish independent work until they are 29 years of age. They may not get significant funding of their own (principal investigator status) until they are 40 years of age. Even then, most scientists’ earnings are likely to be very modest by the standards of similarly qualified professionals.
Why is this? In fact, many scientists working for big companies get good salaries. Some scientists become very rich. Most don’t. They work in state subsidised research labs on modest salaries (perhaps $40,000 USD) where they have reasonable job security and reasonable working conditions, but with rather few perks and no bonuses. There is some social prestige, but a constrained standard of living.
If science is as important as it seems to be, why is the pay so indifferent? Economists would say that rewards will usually match contribution if the market is working properly, and science makes a big contribution. I think that the answer is that most scientists throw away their bargaining power. They are drawn to science because they are intrinsically interested in research and are not in money. They count themselves lucky to have a job they enjoy. As the years go by they certainly notice their lack of money, but by that time it is too late to do much about it. It is rare for scientists to go on strike. Even going on a weekday protest march could mess up the lab routine, and spoil important results.
However, another interpretation is that society is not particularly interested in science, just the few bits that are immediately useful. Tax payers find science impressive in theory but dull in practice, and little of the output is actually valued. Furthermore, the individualised, cottage industry approach is wasteful, and the fact that most of the findings are made freely available cuts out a source of funding and a feedback system to guide science into socially desired research.
So, while it is natural for scientists to ask for more funding (to provide continuing jobs rather than well-paid ones) it may be equally natural for everyone else to spend their money elsewhere. Perhaps science is the freakish pursuit of a disturbed minority, and any public funding should be received with gratitude and due deference.
This note is dedicated to all lab workers who will be popping into the lab over the weekend.