Haven’t They Suffered Enough?

Haven’t They Suffered Enough?

Every time I read about a plan to have more women and minority in science careers, I think of that famous New Yorker quip about gays getting marriedGays getting married? Haven’t they suffered enough?

Women in tenure-track positions? Haven’t they suffered enough?

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I read this lament yesterday:

I was the lucky kid who never had to study for tests. I always scored in the 99% percentile on the annual state assessments.

[… Now I don’t make that much money.]

The national average at the time was that for every one faculty position, there were 200 applications. For our department, there were 300 applications for every one faculty position

[…]

Science will fail because the System is running the scientists out of it.

This is like nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded. In one sense it expresses a truth, but it is actually non-sensical.

The problem with science cannot simultaneously be that scientists are not sufficiently paid and that there are too many of them for the same position. And, if you argue that too many scientists are leaving academia, you also need to explain how this fits in with all the other complains about academia that focus on how hard it is to get a job.

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If you want to make the argument that there should be more science funding, go ahead; I’ll support you 100%.

If you want to make the argument that postdoc salaries are so low that it’s hard to get a qualified candidate, go ahead; I’ll mostly disagree.

If you want to make the argument that the current system leads to sub-optimal science, go ahead, I might support or disagree depending on the details. In the comments to that article someone points out that in the current system PIs are incentivized to be overly conservative and focused on the short-term unlike the private sector which has a longer time-horizon (and perhaps more tolerance for failure). This sort of argument is much more interesting as it implies that there could be better mechanisms for funding.

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But, reading these poor me laments, I actually conclude that the taxpayer is getting a great deal: it gets very smart people working 80 hour days for so little money that they cannot afford to go to the movies[1] and they even produce a lot of nice results. Man, your tax dollars are hard at work!

The goal of public science funding is to get as much science as possible. Scientists are a cost to the public to be minimized. It seems that this is working pretty well.

Can we structure the rest of the public sector to be like this? [2] We’d get excellent public services for much lower taxes (we could surely lower the Council Tax which seems to take such a big chunk of this poor fellow’s salary).

[1] I have to say I don’t fully believe that this guy has it this bad.
[2] Joking aside, I actually think that science funding is, in general, better than other types of funding at getting bang-for-public-buck. Tenure comes late in your career (and it is not enough to sit on your ass and not get fired for 2 years), the grant system is competitive, &c In spite of the fact that public funding dominates, very few people would argue that there is no competition in science.
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9 thoughts on “Haven’t They Suffered Enough?

  1. There is no contradiction in the original post. The author does not argue that scientific or academic jobs are unavailable. The author argues that permanent jobs in science are in such short supply that, statistically, any one pursuing a career in science is most likely going to fail to find a permanent position in science. As you point out, this is actually quite an efficient system in an economic sense. I doubt that the author of the original post would argue that point. I think the author was suggesting that the system causes a great deal of suffering among the vast majority of its participants. It seems like your response is something like “Okay, so what. We still get good science on the cheap. Who cares who suffers?” I suppose I do.

    • In the spirit of the rest of my post: If you want to make an argument that scientists should get more money, then go ahead, I’ll evaluate it after you lay that argument out.

      But the original post said that “Science will fail because the System is running the scientists out of it.” It was subtitled Why Science Will Fail.” It argued that somehow mistreating scientists would lead to Science suffering, but Science ≠ scientists

      If you say that Science is suffering because too many smart people are working too hard for too little money, then I just don’t buy it.

      You can write that Science is suffering from paying too little to people when you show me jobs staying unfilled for lack of good candidates as the best candidates go work for Wall Street or Pharma or are all starting their own companies. When you argue that there are too many candidates for each job and therefore we should pay them more, it doesn’t compute.

      • It does not compute for a simple and obvious reason – money is not a primary (or even a secondary) motivation for those pursuing scienc. Those who pursue science even the PhD level, and certainly beyond, have already self-selected. Science loses many of its brightest candidates at the bachelor level to higher-paying pursuits.

        In any event, there are not “too many candidates” as you argue. The problem is that science has created an extended apprentice system that leads to a dead end for most of its participants. The “apprentice” system is presented as if it were training, when the reality is that it is simply a means of wringing a few more years of poorly paid work out of people whose time would be better spent on other pursuits. Of course, even to get to this point, the victims have already had to sink much of their working lives into obtaining the basic credientials to allow them to work in the field. That’s a particularly clever rub – once 6-8 years have been sunk in pursuing a goal, even one that is statistically unobtainable, it’s even more difficult to justify giving up in the face of what could, in the best case, turn out to be a 2-3 year apprenticeship. Even if you know that apprenticeship is criminally underpaid.

  2. Criminally underpaid? Where do postdocs in science get a below median salary?

    Last time I checked, even the NIH salaries were quite a bit above median. Not comparable to Wall St, I’ll grant you that, but criminal?

    *

    You still have not argued how this harms Science as opposed to scientists. In fact, if you say that people are self-motivated, then this just says that people are getting some other types of satisfaction.

    If good people get satisfaction from working on science as opposed to other fields; then, yes, the taxpayer is getting a great deal by paying them just 125% of the median salary. I still haven’t seen any argument, from the taxpayer’s POV, why they should pay them 150% or 200% of median.

    • Seems like you should read the original article more carefully before commenting. The author presents the example of Harvard post-docs not being provided health insurance and having to pay for it out of pocket on their salaries. I happen to know this is true from experience. You seem to imply that there is no place where post-docs make less than the median income. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that implication is being made in jest, though I confess that I don’t get the joke.

      I am not arguing that low post-doc pay harms science as opposed to scientists. I think you benefit from re-reading my posts as well. The taxpayer isn’t getting a good deal, the taxpayer is getting a fabulous deal. What I’m saying is that it’s an unconscionable deal.

      Your argument is basically that people should be paid what they will take, regardless of any other considerations. I find that a pretty dubious and short sighted proposition even when all parties are equally well-informed, honest, and on equal footing. I find it criminal or fraudulent where there is blatant or outright dishonestly. Perhaps the post-doc system is somewhat in between and your indignation at my “criminally underpaid” comment, though hyperbolic, is not completely unjustified. But your position implies that anything not criminal is fair. I fundamentally disagree.

      • Without any numbers on how much they were paid & how much health insurance costs, I cannot evaluate whether having to buy health insurance is that bad.

        This page says NIH is a minimum at Harvard: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/faculty-affairs/postdoctoral-research-fellows/postdoc-salary-guidelines/

        NIH scale would probably allow you buy your own health insurance and still be above the median salary (NIH scale is ~40k, median is ~30k; still leaves ~10k for health insurance. How much is the 2nd cheapest bronze plan in the MA exchange if your salary is 40k?).

        Not great, and not an offer I’d take; but I’m not going to be losing any sleep over those who do.

        *

        Ok, go ahead and make the argument that it’s unconscionable to pay NIH scale, which, again, corresponds to 125-140% of US median salary.

        The public sector tends to be more egalitarian than the private sector: it will overpay at the bottom, while underpaying at the top. NIH scale is in part a reflection of that as well.

      • I’d suggest googling the median salary in Cambridge to investigate your own claim. The median household income (excluding children) is $72k.

  3. 1. Median household income is not the same as median salary; in fact, median household income is almost sure to be higher than median salary, as many households have >1 salary, and many people have other sources of income besides their salary (even postdocs sometimes 🙂

    At a national US level, the median household income is almost twice the median salary (>50k vs 30k, IIRC).

    2. In any case, I don’t see why the US taxpayer should take as their yardstick the Cambridge wage distribution, instead of the national one.

    I mean, if you take a postdoc in Connecticut, should the taxpayer pay for you to live like a hedge-fund manager? In Palo Alto, the income per capita is ~75k (median family income well above 100k). Should a couple of married Stanford postdocs be a 1%er household or is it OK if they are just at the top 10%?

    Currently, they would clock at the 25-percentile in their first year, rising to the 15-percentile after 5 years. Again, with no extra income and assuming NIH salaries, which are often topped up.

    • Sure, the numbers are different and don’t count things like non-salary income or expenditures on dependents. If anything, that’s pretty telling. Is a middle aged post-doc who has spent all of his/her adult life in academia more likely to have a child or an extensive stock portfolio. If you point out that I haven’t actually compiled data to answer this question, you’re right. Do I really need to?

      I think we’re probably getting to the point where we will simply have to agree to disagree. I do think that someone doing Harvard-level research and who already has a doctorate might be inherently worth more than the average person. I won’t disclose my current occupation, but I will say that my secretary literally makes more money. She didn’t go to college. True that she’s no naive do-gooder hoping to make the world a better place. I know for a fact she would not work for less – she hardly works for what she’s actually paid. But I’m not sure I want to live in a society that values her more than a geneticist, biochemist, or theoretical physicist just because these latter people are stupid enough to want to make the world a better place.

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