Friday, 20 September 2013

Science is a lean diet

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.


  1. In the end I decided that people were paying me to pursue my hobby. One piece of supporting evidence was that when I retired I carried on doing research, unpaid, for fun. But oh the joy of not pursuing funding any more, nor even having to "keep up with the literature". Let those dull dogs keep up with me, I decided.

  2. Yes, my publication rate increased after official retirement. The relief of not having to compete, and the pleasure of choosing one's own subjects to pursue.

  3. endre bakken stovner21 September 2013 at 12:23

    It would be interesting to speculate what effects salaries have on the competence levels of academics. I get the impression that in comp. sci. the best researchers get lucrative jobs at Google and Microsoft research so the runner ups stay in academia. Someone at my uni suggested halving the number of researchers and doubling their salary to attract the brightest.

    All else equal, I'd imagine that twice the number of 130 IQs would not be able to compete in research quantity or quality with half the number of 145 IQs. But luckily for me, the proposal led to nothing.

    All this might be different in other fields where there are fewer jobs in the private sector.

  4. Some academic salaries have to make concessions to the market place, as you suggest, but most do not, particularly when there is no marketplace for obscure subjects. David Lubinski's work would suggest that IQ 145 (3 sigmas) outperform IQ 130 (2 sigmas) by a big margin, so it might make sense to try out the experiment and restrict all university posts to the very highest intellects. The rest of us would have to make our own way in life, occasionally blogging our opinions in our own time, and at our own cost.

    1. I was actually stopping by the lab during the weekend just now (but only to print out some articles for recreational reading.)

      Thanks for the suggestion! His homepage seems like a treasure-trove of interesting research:

      Will start with "Ability differences among people who have commensurate degrees matter for scientific creativity".

  5. But then you might end up with universities full of very clever chaps who are not really interested in research or teaching but who like the ambience and the money (like many of the Oxbridge colleges for part of their histories).

    Meanwhile the jobs they should have been filling elsewhere would be occupied by a bunch of (relative) mediocrities.

    Anyway, all this will become a non-problem because the universities will soon face a new Dissolution of the Monasteries.

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  6. Maybe science is not well-paid because we have too many scientists? Supply and demand. I'm sure that increasing the immigration of people with STEM degrees will help scientists to find good-paying jobs, as increasing supply always increases prices, right?