Friday, May 3, 2013

What's it worth?

Being a scientist is hard, not least because we're constantly struggling to find funding.

Our jobs are difficult, require more than average dedication, and yet are often only temporary. We bounce from one project to the next, hoping to find a permanent academic job (so that we can then fight for funding and tenure) or giving up and moving into less demanding occupations. We get paid little in the grand scheme of things, certainly much less than what we are worth. But we love what we do, and so we put up with it.

It took me roughly a decade of education past high school to become a scientist. Then, just like in the medical profession, I embarked upon a "residency" - postdoctoral positions, all temporary, where you are meant to learn more than even what your degree taught you. You have to go through these positions, often many of them, and often for many years (each lasts 1-3 years, depending on field of study, funding, etc), before you can even think about applying for a permanent job. So I'm now at the end of my third postdoc and finally applying for permanent jobs. Such is the nature of the beast, if you will. My effort, my hard work and dedication, all goes toward science - toward the furthering of the knowledgebase of humankind - and for the most part, my satisfaction in this pursuit is enough reward.
Now let's consider a different story. A man, who starts with nothing but a desire, works hard, goes to college, designs a gadget that acts as both a phone and a radio (think iPhone), manages to sell the idea to a big firm and ends up rich. Our cultural zeitgeist says he earned it, through his hard work and dedication, and we should let him have it. Don't penalize the successful people, right?
Here's where we expose the lie. Is the story really all that different, at least at the start? I'm successful, too - or, I would be, if the "product" that I have worked to create was something other than intelligence. All of my hard work and dedication goes toward making something that we (as capitalists) have a difficult time understanding, much less assigning a monetary value to. If I spent that last decade plus of my life designing iPads or "special" assets, I'd be rich. As it is, however, my hard work and dedication is not rewarded. I don't earn money based upon my level of effort. In fact, sometimes, no matter how hard I try, funding dries up and I don't earn money at all.
Capitalism doesn't have to be this way - we can assign a monetary value to intelligence, or to protection of natural resources, or any of those other things which we know intrinsically have worth but which we never bother to quantify. We can acknowledge that my effort is worth money, just like the effort of someone who invents Windows software is worth money.
There is also the matter of where the money comes from. In the case of iPhones and Microsoft and Bank of America, the money for the thing comes from people who are less well off than the people who designed the thing. In other words, people who purchase iPads are, on the whole, not people who make nearly as much income as Steve Jobs did, and the people underwater in their BoA mortgages will never be as rich as the bank's president. The money that the rich make in a capitalistic society comes from the poor (or the "poorer"). But the money I get comes from the government, which means it comes from everyone. Everyone puts in a share, a little or a lot, and that is where my "reward" comes from. It used to be that the rich gave back to society by personally funding things like science experiments and symphonies and social welfare projects, but we don't have that anymore.

So the question is - how much is it worth? How much is intelligence worth, and why don't we reward it the same way we reward the capitalistic creation of crap? Why do I have to struggle for money, sometimes even for a job, when I worked just as hard to get to this point as someone who makes ten times what I make in a year?

Science is hard enough as it is.


  1. Wow, Kelly- pretty harsh. I would add that in place of "where you are meant to learn more than even what your degree taught you", you could substitute "where you are meant to work for low pay as long as the tenured professors decide to stay in their jobs".

    But on the other hand, do you have a cell phone? Then for some odd reason, that "crap" that someone had to sit down and design is valuable enough to you that you carry it around all day and pay through the nose to do so. That is the essence of capitalism- matching scut jobs with social needs.

    "Intelligence" by itself doesn't do anyone any good. We are all intelligent, and there are many intelligences. The question is how valuable what we do is to others- how much they really value your research, or the latest Mars mission, or the latest aircraft carrier, etc.. These decisions are very, very difficult to judge, and the willingness of people to actually pay for things has been one effective, if woefully incomplete, societal principle of making such judgements.

    Unfortunately, the valuing of basic research and many other public/common goods is in the hands of our political branches, which are at the moment hopelessly unrepresentative, unconscious of long term social needs, and corrupted.

    The other institution that does some of this valuing is the academy, which as you can tell from student loans, rising tuition, loss of state support, and other indexes, is maxed out- they do not have to extra bandwidth or funding to consider expanding the academic space either.

    1. Hi, Burk - of course, there are things that I need that capitalism provides, but I don't think even these are valued properly anymore. How much does a car mechanic make? Or a farmer? And yet without them, the rest of the system is toast.

      I think the main problem is the valuation of science, and of basic research - we know from historical example that basic research does provide amazing and useful spinoffs, but we can't predict them ahead of time. That's just not how science works, as you know. But more and more, funding is being granted only when someone can prove that their goals will be accomplished - engineering, not science - and so science itself is being undervalued even more than it already is.

  2. When I was a postdoc when I started at Surrey, I went to a forum at the Institute of Physics at London about working conditions for postdocs. I don't remember the entire constitution of the panel. I just remember one guy - a particularly corpulent New Zealander who was some bigwig in the funding council.

    I brought up the case of a Russian postdoc who had accepted a post at Surrey on the ill-researched assumption that a country like the UK wouldn't offer a job in science research on a salary on which one couldn't live. In the end he sent his family back to Russia and slept on the floor of the department. I suggested this was an immoral way to behave on our part (and seriously, the cost of living in Guildford is such that you can't have a family on a single salary - or certainly couldn't then). The EPSRC suit laughed and said that if people take the job at that price, then the price is fair. Capitalism as work... (but I agree, it doesn't have to be that way)

    1. Paul, I know some places are worse than others for how much postdocs - or even faculty/staff - get paid. We take the job at that price because we often have no other choice (it's job or no job). Plus, when you graduate and look for postdoc positions, you're starting from a salary that leaves you living below the poverty line... so anything seems like a great deal in comparison.


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