Why Science is a Third World Economy

Because people are cheap and things are expensive.

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To a large extent, it is easier to get money to pay for people (salaries [1]) than to pay for things. Other times, people show up who are willing to work without being paid (they are self-funded). But then you need to get them materials to work with. For that, you need to actually spend some money.  And sometimes you actually have money, but it can only pay for things of type X, but not of type Y, which is what you wanted.

So, it often feel very much like the third-world: a lot of people standing around a few physical resources, and replacement of capital by labour.

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A while back I read a review which was comparing several technologies for the same measurement task [2]. There were two high-quality methods in terms of the output. One was very automated but required you buy some kit (~$400), the other was artisanal.

The authors wrote that the first one was good because it was very fast, but expensive. The other one took a long time, but was cheap. They didn’t even price in the cost of labour! They didn’t even ask how many hours of graduate student time you can get for $400.

Which, of course, makes some sense in the public-funded bureaucratic world where money is not fungible. You cannot often reallocate money from stipends to materials.

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And then there is that expensive piece of equipment that is not really used because there was a specific half-a-million grant to buy it, but then enthusiasm petered out and the person who was going to use it had gotten a different job by the time the thing was delivered that nobody here really cared to pick it up.

Yep, that’s a third world thing too.

[1] or stipends which are exactly like a salary, except for tax purposes.
[2] I could probably find it now if I looked, but I don’t actually want to lose track of the main point.
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3 thoughts on “Why Science is a Third World Economy

  1. Pingback: Why Python is Better than Matlab for Scientific Software | Meta Rabbit

  2. Pingback: Year in Review: Blogposts | Meta Rabbit

  3. And then there is that expensive piece of equipment that is not really used because there was a specific half-a-million grant to buy it, but then enthusiasm petered out and the person who was going to use it had gotten a different job by the time the thing was delivered that nobody here really cared to pick it up.

    Currently trying to avoid that very pitfall as I’m rushed to spend my start-up funds. Want to buy things I know I’ll grow into.

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