Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Miss Atomic Bomb goes to Washington

Yesterday, I participated in what's known as a "fly in" - people linked by a common goal all come together in DC for one day to blitz as many public offices as possible with their message. Our common goal was funding for nuclear physics (we were, incidentally, all nuclear physicists); we came together for a day to let our representatives know that we supported the President's proposed budget for DOE Office of Science and that they, too, should support it.
One important thing to note about such fly-ins is that the people flying in don't often meet with the actual representative. Your Senator or Congressperson is too busy to meet with everyone who would like to share a story or voice an opinion, so instead you meet with a staffer - a legislative assistant who has been assigned to a specific topic (such as budget, or science & tech, or immigration policy). These people range in experience from fresh-faced political science majors just out of college to PhD scientists on AAAS Congressional Fellowships (I had the good fortune of encountering one such fellow in the office of Colorado's senator Michael Bennet). One should not, however, assume that just because the meeting is with a staffer, the meeting is a wasted effort. These assistants bend the ear of their respective representatives, and can have a tremendous amount of influence - a Senator or Member relies upon the input of their staffers for making important decisions (because, as I said, they're busy). Just like you would trust the opinion of your butcher when buying meat or your mechanic when fixing your car, the staffers provide educated opinions on their assigned topics to the office where they work.
Because we're only in Washington for one day, schedules are tight. I had meetings with six different offices, in both the House and Senate, between 10:30am and 3pm (with a short break for lunch in the House cafeteria!). There were others with me, usually one or two, and the day's organizers made sure to provide us with materials that we could leave with people (such as pamphlets on how nuclear physics is important to national security, medical research, isotope production, and the like). All of the offices I went to were full of interested and supportive people, people who took time out of their day to listen to what we had to say. By the time I was finished yesterday afternoon, I was exhausted but pleasantly surprised at how the day had gone.
Today I'm back in my regular office, back to my regular work, and the whirlwind of yesterday already seems that much further away. But asking for something once isn't generally enough, so I'm sure I'll be back in Washington again to make sure we have funding, not just now, but for the future.

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.