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Why Aren’t There More Scientists? A One-Word Explanation

“The type of science that I do is sometimes known as ‘curiosity-driven research,’” writes Hope Jahren, who teaches paleobiology at the University of Hawai‘i. “This means that my work will never result in a marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct gain.” If by some crazy chance she discovers something useful, that will be “figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me,” she writes.

So she’s the real deal—a scientist chasing questions, designing experiments, and showing 19, 20, and 21 year olds how to do it. Her lab has produced important papers, mostly about why plants have been so successful on our planet. Giant corporations don’t throw money at her. Venture capitalists don’t take her to lunches, but she is rewarded. The National Science Foundation, a government agency, gives her three-year grants. They are hard to get.

Yet once she has the cash—you scientists reading this will yawn, but I was a bit startled—it turns out that taxpayer money has an odd habit of vanishing, even when it’s right there in your hands.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Every year Congress gives the National Science Foundation roughly 7.3 billion dollars. That sum hasn’t changed much (in real terms) for decades. The Defense Department gets $573 billion. But $7.3 billion isn’t bad. “It sounds like a lot of money,” says Jahren, even if it’s spread across biology, geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and some computer science.

In her own little corner of things, paleobiology (dinosaurs! woolly mammoths! evolution! fossils! history of life! history of global warming!), the government funds six million dollars of research.

Divided 50 times—assuming one paleobiologist in every state—that works out to $120,000 per grant. In fact, Jahren counted between 30 and 40 grants per year, for an average of $165,000. Assuming some of those scientists hire assistants, she figures there are “about 100 [government] funded paleobiologists in America.”


Photograph Courtesy of Jörg Schneider, Photo Archive, Czech Geological Survey
Photograph Courtesy of Jörg Schneider, Photo Archive, Czech Geological Survey


Yet “we keep graduating more [students] each year,” she writes.“Researchers love what [we] do … So as with all creatures driven by love, we can’t help but breed.” But graduates have a hard time finding work. Some go to oil companies (or used to), some to museums, some work on dinosaur movies—but it isn’t a booming profession. Paleobiology professors on campus, says a study by Roy Plotnick of the University of Illinois, are lopsidedly oldish …

“[T]here are about 4.5 times as many full professors than assistant professors and more than twice as many emeritus professors.”

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But jobs aren’t our subject. Let’s go back to money: Hope Jahren gets $165,000 to pay for a typical three-year project. The University of Hawai‘i pays her salary except for summers. (“[I]t is very uncommon for a professor to be paid when classes are not in session …”) For help, she needs a teammate. She can’t do what she does alone.

So she budgets for one suitable helper. These days, she might ask for a $25,000 base salary plus $10,000 to cover benefits, which seems ridiculously low. But when she makes her hire, she has to pay a “tax” (called overhead or indirect cost) of another $15,000 to the university. “I never see a dime of it … This tax is ostensibly used to pay the university’s air-conditioning bill, fix the drinking fountains, and keep the toilets flushing, though I feel moved to mention that each of these things works only intermittently within the building that houses my laboratory.”

So that’s $50,000 to support the employee—over three years, $150,000.

Which leaves how much for equipment? Supplies? Travel to science meetings? Christmas parties? Chemicals? She’s got $15,000 left—that’s $5,000 a year. But she gets taxed by the university here too, leaving her with, maybe, $3,500 a year. That’s it.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Jeesh. And when the three years is up, she needs another round to keep going, which means she’s got to come up with results that justify the grant she got to get the grant she needs next. It helps to get multiple grants so you can double up to stay afloat.

When we talk in this presidential campaign about “falling behind” in the race to produce scientists, all Jahrens can do is laugh. “America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Science has never been a flush business, but it’s getting parched. The next time you meet a science professor, she says, ask her if she ever worries about her lab data, worries about making a deadline, worries about an experiment that won’t work, worries that she’s trying to crack an uncrackable question. “Ask a science professor what she worries about,” Hope Jahren says, “It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: ‘Money.’”

Hope Jahren’s new book is Lab Girl. It’s the story of her life in the lab and the field studying soil, fossils, friends, and worrying, worrying, worrying about … you know what.

43 thoughts on “Why Aren’t There More Scientists? A One-Word Explanation

  1. I think that one must understand that education is an industry and a business. Given that paleobiology does not produce bombs, propaganda, money, or oil (except indirectly) it’s a miracle that it exists as a state institution at all. I am not surprised that the locals do what they can to skim from whatever small amount of money is provided to researchers. The strong take from the weak. That is our system.

    1. It depends on whether you value scientific inquiry that is driven by curiosity and yes, by intellect, rather than by some contorted, if not distorted, view that human immortality would be a good thing. The former is the root of all useful and truly significant scientific discovery, such as the inquiry that resulted in publication of the Watson and Crick paper. The latter is the root of all “biomedical” research, speaking of things that would not have been possible without curiosity-driven scientific inquiry such as what resulted in the publication of the Watson and Crick paper. Of course, “biomedical” is where the money is. “Scientists” who have committed their lives and resources in that realm are perhaps better known as “investigators,” with “principal investigator” as the holy career grail. Curiosity is not the motivator, although I grant that it can be a useful tool in that realm.

      Also, “overhead” (indirect costs) are typically funded separately but within the same grant, by pre-agreed institution-specific rates. If Dr. Jahren is being billed by her own institution for indirect costs that should be covered by that column in her NSF funding, she should ask why (NSF certainly would). I’m wondering if she has some intramural (from within the institution) funds besides, which might indeed be subject to indirect cost recovery by her institution.

      1. As someone who does Research Administration for a living, I can tell you that they didn’t quite explain the problems with overhead correctly. Overhead is the “fee” that the university takes to keep the lights on, the heat on, to pay for my salary (my career is actually putting grants like hers together and making sure she follows hundreds of pages of regulations!), it pays for people to purchase supplies, her facilities are expensive to maintain. While her institution may not have a good maintenance of the facilities, that is another matter. The institutions do lay out considerable sums of money to allow the PI to do their work. Imagine what her grant would be worth if she applied as a private citizen with no laboratory, no infrastructure, no library or journal subscriptions. It adds up to quite a large sum. This “overhead” is formally referred to as “Facilities and Administration”; the institution asks for a rate based on their research-related expenses, but this rate must be negotiated with a federal entity, DHHS is a common example. The rate is almost always lower than what the institution feels it needs. Hospitals can actually run over 100%.

        The second granularity is that not all government agencies handle F&A the same way–NIH asks you how much you request for direct costs, and then will award the indirect associated with that on top of your request. This means that NIH recipients do not feel negatively at all towards overhead. NSF on the other hand, with a much more limited budget, awards grants on a total amount. If you have an NSF grant for $150k, but it comes with a 69% overhead rate, you’ll only have $88,757 in direct costs. If you have a fringe benefit rate of about 20%, you will really only have $73,965 to use for salaries. Consider that if you want a student, you’ll also have to use some of those funds for tuition remission, which could be almost half of the salary you are paying the student that year. $150k may only support the work of a grad student and a portion of a second with some meager travel or materials and supplies. The grad of course is making only about $30-35k/year.

        So yes, scientists do not have enough money for research, but it’s more complicated than that.
        Some institutions have it worse, particularly NSF and DOE. NSF is the one that funds the most diversity of subjects, and they have unfortunately earned the title, “Not Sufficiently Funded.” Basic research needs more respect. People don’t go about trying to invent supermarket laser scanners. Decades ago they were simply observing how atoms move. We were fortunate that the basic research turned into applied research.

          1. No, tuition is not responsible for the research arm of universities. Why should students pay for government or privately-funded research to be carried out? Again, these are not all equivalent funding sources. Tuition is for teaching and education. Overhead (F&A) is collected for the infrastructure expenses associated with sponsored research. Yes, some people do get paid a lot of money, but again, this is also an administrative field that requires a high level of expertise and compliance, and that is not cheap. I work at an Ivy league school, and I personally push out roughly 100 applications a year. If you spend only five minutes looking at the instructions for an NSF proposal, you’ll quickly realize why my university has my office. But it doesn’t matter the volume or what school I work at—these grants are a lot of work. Faculty need help, and experienced help is incredibly valuable to the success of their proposals. It’s worth paying for.

      2. As a further example of the difference between the two worlds of science (i.e., between curiosity/intellect driven research to no intended end except its own, versus “biomedical” research intended purely to prolong human life and eventually to provide human immortality to those who can afford it) , I was witness some years back to this:

        At my (former) institution, which is a top-10 research university with many pure science departments (entomology, biochemistry, botany, evolution and ecology, etc) and associated medical and veterinary colleges, one fine afternoon a “human geneticist” who had recently achieved tenure wandered into my office and noticed a copy of the American Society of Mammalogists publication “Biology of the Heteromyidae,” a very hefty tome with (then) state -of-knowledge regarding heteromyid rodents (kangaroo rats, pocket mice, and related genera). He studied the title and asked “what’s a heetermeedee? and upon receiving the above explanation he exhaled loudly, thumbed briefly through the book, and noticed that the scientific method was used throughout. He exclaimed in apparent surprise “Someone spent some time on this,” then added “why?.” Then the light went on and he asked “who employs these people,” and upon learning that some had labs within 100 yards of his, he then said (not asked) “Where do they get their funding?” Upon being told “NSF,” he exploded (figuratively) ” waste of my tax money!” This person was employed as a research scientist, was about the same age as many of the contributors to the book he ridiculed, but he was unable to fathom the curiosity and intellectual motivation that led to the study of kangaroo rats because they exist. BTW, he was funded annually at nearly seven figures, from multiple NIH grants. I’d be surprised if the entire collection of contributors to “Biology of the Heteromyidae” saw that much research funding in a lifetime. And also BTW, much of the information in that book was directly applicable to the physiology of laboratory mice, which that individual used in his work (a couple of thousand per year). If that attitude is the future of US science, I’m glad I’m also a musician. .

        1. Thinking about Sean’s post, I think scientists are probably not all that different from actors, engineers, salesmen; most do what the marketplace tells them will lead to money, power and prestige, but a few are oddballs. They do their work for more personal, quixotic, maybe daring reasons. They want to find out something that haunts them, or feels beautiful to them, or won’t let them rest. They can’t explain what moves them, but they can’t stop being themselves. It’s part blessing, part curse.
          Our reward system puts a little money aside for those folks, which, as some of the posts here agree, is a wonderful thing. I guess the deeper question here is: what about the whole research community? Are they being given enough money to grow and persist? I realize money is short. But look at that Defense Department number. It’s way bigger than any other nation’s. And when our national security depends in important part on our need for energy (hello, engineers), on our need to stay safe from invading microbes (hello biologists), on our need to clean our planet (hello microbial scientists), on our need to find water (engineers again) — I’m wondering if we’re putting our bets in the right places.
          But what I wonder is — what if the sums we put aside for the bigger entour reward system

        2. This is extremely unsurprising to me. I worked as a lab animal tech at a major university in Norway for many years, and was always gobsmacked at how little respect lab animal science got from the people whose livelihoods rely on it. Lots of them are great, and would come to us for help and advice, but quite a few were extremely dismissive even when they were told that the thing they wanted to do to save money on animals could have huge consequences for their scientific results. It was extremely disheartening and in the end drove me to leave a job that I had loved when I started out. If they can care that little for animals that have direct impact on their work, why should they care about any kind of biological, animal or veterinary science?

      3. Sounds not too different from how alchemists were supported by monarchs in the hope that they would discover the secret to eternal life.

  2. strong dedication is required to invent something, now a day you could’t see that dedication that much in everybody, since everybody is running for the money, fame and position only. and also it is brain drain from India because of many factors, i could’t reveal now.

  3. A massive fault in science is that young scientists are considered “students” and thus paid according, when they really are not students at all. A 23 year scientist with a BSc can go into a job earning $60k/year, and his classmate becomes a PhD “student” and earns $25k. Both are equally unskilled and require on the job training, yet the PhD gets the “student” label and a correspondingly low income. What is perhaps worse is a postdoc, where you are still considered “in training”. ANY new job requires some initial training, and frankly calling young PhD level scientists “students” or “in training” devalues their skills and experience. I’m quite surprised there is so much competition in science when private industry compensates scientists much more (granted, not all scientific fields have prospects in industry).

    1. One of the biggest problems is that universities want students and postdocs paid relatively the same for their title. You don’t want a postdoc in one field compensated at $42k, and their friend in Computer Science making $100k. The result is that the CS field can’t compete with silicon valley or the national labs–resulting in a talent drain. On the other hand, that other field may not be able to go higher than $42k. Universities are not setup to respond to market forces. I understand the system, but it is frustrating for the PIs.

  4. As a research scientist studying endangered species (another area where there are no profits to be made from research), I think this article is 100% on the money, no pun intended. Even with a very strong CV in both teaching and research I can’t get a tenure-track position because what I study won’t likely bring in the big grants or industry contracts for the university to take their 25 – 50% overhead costs from. It is very discouraging for me and the students that want to make the world a better place by saving wildlife. I have had many students come to me and say they want to be just like me and in my mind I say ‘What? Unemployed?’

  5. While there’s been much written about the ballooning administrative class in universities and how these people are driving up costs, this article misses that within this (perhaps oversize) group is a cadre of necessary and useful professionals. Having worked for grant-makers for years, there’s a clear difference between grant proposals and project plans submitted directly by the would-be principal investigator and those that are supported by professionals in proposal writing, finance and project management. Likewise, good universities provide publishing support, like editors and illustrators to name a couple of roles. Ultimately, the university needs to spend some of the grant money on services and equipment that the PI uses in seeking grants and executing the project. That “tax” isn’t just to pay the electric bill (though it does that too).
    Beyond that there’s been a dialog within the grant-making community for years about whether to slice the funding into a few big pieces or a lot of little pieces. Since we continue to graduate so many academics, the prevailing practice has remained to spread the money as far as possible (with some notable exceptions and trends) to employ as many as possible.

  6. A very interesting problem. Perhaps we need more government funding. Perhaps we need fewer grants with higher value (and thus less research and researchers – do we have a glut of researchers? is everything being researched of equal value?) Perhaps the science community needs to change how it funds itself; maybe this model’s time has passed. Kickstarter for basic research?

    1. Don’t we pay enough in taxes? Everyone has their hands out for government charity. With $20 trillion in debt, we need to ask hard questions on what the government can afford.

      1. No

        Why do you think the US is 20 Trillion in debt. Back in the 90s when the tax rate was a bit higher, the debt was being reduced.

        Fact is that taxes in the US are lower than in other industrialized nations.

        Fact is that because of this lower tax rate our infrastructure sucks and our educational system is falling apart

  7. “Every year Congress gives the National Science Foundation roughly 7.3 billion dollars. That sum hasn’t changed much (in real terms) for decades.”

    I’d say the NSF is doing pretty damn well if its funding hasn’t been cut over the decades.

    “The Defense Department gets $573 billion.”

    So we fund the Defense Department in order to keep from being annihilated or enslaved a lot more than we fund the NSF. Doesn’t that just reflect our society’s priorities?

  8. I’ve said it for years. There is a reason every parent has there kid in dozens of different sports every night of the week. With sports (which doesn’t actually produce anything of value) they have a chance to get their high priced college paid for and if they are one of the lucky few make millions of dollars to play a game. Meanwhile every STEM graduate is looking forward to a lifetime of low pay, long hours, and zero gratitude. After all you get what you pay for.

    1. Bobbie–
      I didn’t lie.
      I just used many words to get to the One Word at the very end.
      It’s there. Waiting.

  9. It depends on the type of immortality we want. If we as individuals just want to live forever (i. e,, the ones who can afford the technology that may make that possible) then we need to throw lots of money and other resources at “biomedical research” and hope that not too much basic research is needed any more to achieve that dubious goal. If on the other hand we believe, as in my opinion we should, that all science should be immortal and always moving forward, then we need to accept that all science properly done is equally worthy of being funded, promoted, and appreciated, that paleobiology and other such rarefied pursuits actually stand a pretty good chance of being relevant and contributing significantly to our intellectual progress and knowledge base.. Above all, we should not allow limited thinkers to dominate our scientific culture, as too many now seem to do. The roots of that unfortunate development were neatly summarized by a sign on the door of an accomplished physiologist near my lab some years back–it stated simply “If you run out of ideas, you can always sequence the human genome.”

  10. Do scientist actually contribute anything, or just take credit for what is produced from the combined efforts of every member of the family of Man? We’re in this together, all 7+ billion of us. Everyone of us contributes something into whatever is produced by anyone of us. Even so, there are hundreds of millions who have no assurance of feeding their children a decent meal today. In the several hundred years of science history, if scientist had made that assurance a top priority, there would be no poverty today. Think about that the next time you think some scientists is getting to much, or not enough tax money,

    1. Are you forgetting the invention of antibiotics, the green revolution, and all of the vaccines against polio, measles, etc.? How could you say that science hasn’t made life easier for people? In fact, it has allowed the population to grow exponentially, defying many predictions of crash and decline.

      Maybe if scientists were given some power to enact what they find to be a good solution to those problems you mentioned, then the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, there are many people out there who scream louder, or have money to put in the pockets of politicians and decision-makers.

      1. Because of how we define ourselves, and the path we’re on, I believe America will find a solution to the poverty problem. On the question of who would lead the effort, what I was trying to say is that scientist had, and as far as it goes, still have that opportunity. They have, as we all do, the power to complete the tasks we set ourselves to. As to the world being a better place; the world is a perfect creation. Even scientist can’t improve on perfection.

        1. Well, you had my attention on the first comment, but you lost all perspective with the last one there buddy. If you think that the world was “created” perfectly, then you’ve answered your own question and why the hell are you here on this thread? What could you possibly have to add to anything in the world with that mindset? World is getting hotter and more crowded, well Mustafa says that it’s perfect, so just leave it alone. Oh wow, now that’s a laugh. Leave the thinking to us who have a few brain cells left to rub and you go sit down and do whatever mind numbingly stupid thing that it is you do. Cheers.

          1. Imagine placing a TV set in front of a monkey, such that the monkey becomes engaged in watching the movie that’s playing. It’s a movie showing two monkeys fighting. One monkey appears to clearly win the fight, then begins to approach the TV screen in, what appears to the monkey watching, an extremely threatening manner. The monkey watching, on feeling this threat, picks up a rock, and smashes the TV set screen.

            There was no threat. The monkey watching simply didn’t understand that it was watching a movie.

            Similar to other members of the family of Man, we believe that:
            1. we, the worlds we live in, and on, whatever those might be, and all else that exists, are parts of a perfect creation, and that
            2. Man is the head of creation, and that
            3. every member of the family plays a part in Man’s action.

            A hot, and crowded world, for example, is simply an outcome of Man’s actions, like the broken TV set screen was simply an outcome of the monkey’s action.

            Now let’s say I’m wrong. The way creation provides for resolution of such differences, e.g., as may exist between you, and I in this thread, is through the mechanism of truth being an irresistible force, and the mechanics of communication in an attempt toward the civil exchange of non threatening ideas.

  11. A few years ago, I was in a very interesting discussion about these issues. It was intended to be for graduate students and postdocs, but as it was at the end of a conference weekend, there were PIs there as well. The students were debating how you choose where to go to do your postdoctoral research: do you go to a lab that’s answering the question you care about but doesn’t use new, exciting techniques, or do you go to the lab that’s being funded well and can teach you techniques, but isn’t researching the questions you care about.

    There was a fascinating divide. Almost all the students and postdocs agreed (myself included) that it was better to go learn the techniques and then use them to answer your questions once you’re able to start your own lab, since including those techniques (such as “optogenetics”) can increase the likelihood of being funded. The older PIs insisted that you need to follow the question, regardless of how likely it is to get funded. The young PIs kept very, very quiet.

    I think the vast majority of scientists are motivated by a quest for knowledge and understanding of something huge and fascinating and probably not fundable by agencies. But they find ways to make parts of that question into studies that can get them grants. They circle around the edge of it to stay afloat, hoping they can eventually get to the heart of it once they’re one day secure in their funding (as sometimes happens with older researchers i.e. Francis Crick and the nature of consciousness)

    1. Many years ago, I presented myself with a choice. Go after either money, or understanding. I chose understanding. My reasoning being my belief that were I to choose money, eventually I would be required to forgo some much needed understanding. Whereas if I chose understanding, needed money would follow. I like to think that the older PIs were trying to share a similar belief.

  12. The problem with dividing science into curiosity driven and investment driven is that one never knows when the curiosity end will morph into something that can be applied to a real world problem or be developed into a product. One example is Ronald Bracewell, whose work in radio astronomical imaging led to X-ray tomography. Grote Reber first used parabolic dishes to conduct the earliest radio maps of the galaxy, and the fact we have these dishes everywhere stands as a testimony to his foresight. There are other examples I am sure – these are teh ones I am most familiar with.

    1. Thank you Dr. Bruce, you hit the nail on the head. Yes, scientists have to be the slightest selfish, but you never know when doing something that may seem simple cracks a code on some forefront.

  13. I would like to offer comments, having been a government (NIH) supported biomedical research for over 20 years and on “soft money” (grant support) for that same amount of time. And also having bumpy and stressful resaerch travels.

    From my POV, the American public research enterprise is in trouble of collapse due to insufficient institutional support and, as a result, fewer American citizens are going into those jobs.

    It is a complicated picture, but here are some key elements to the problem.

    1. Our country is not, and has never been, very supportive of research. Science is not a strong part of our culture, as Neil DeGrass Tyson has pointed out. I personally confused our intense interest in the Apollo program and, as a youth, saw it as a sign of support of science. I was wrong, but it propelled me to follow engineering and science careers.

    These days, a significant slice of American pundits on the political right work to undermine the respectibility of scientists, derisively calling them DOCTOR so-and-so, or the this person has a PEE-AYCH-DEE in sarcastic ways. Presumably this is done because of their pro-creationist (but anti-science) views and their belief that global warming is a science-promoted hoax that is “anti-business”.

    2. Those in Universities with the power to improve the lot of post-docs and research scientists simply do not treat research scientist position very well or attend to their challenges or inequities.

    Deans of research will give copious attention to a small slice of top-rate researchers, providing new lab space, spousal hires, etc.. However, the average university researcher gets no such attention.

    Part of the administration’s apathy is due to how their positions are funded: by the accumulated grant moneys from all the institutional researcherers. Thus, their jobs are secure due to this cumulatively stable pot of money. But that totally insulates them from the insecurity and stress of the post doc or research scientist, who can lose their job because their NIH grant support ends. I have even heard a prominent dean says that he only focuses on the “macro” and not on individual issues. That sort of talk is emblematic, but is galling to many researchers.

    3. Research salaries are low
    In 1983, I started out as an engineer at motorola and made then-good starting salary of $27k. Ten years later, with my Ph.D. training in electrophysiology complete, my first NIH-post-doc was funded at $18.6k. This was just very depressing: to go through 5 more years of training and make less than 1/2 (in constant dollars) than I did before. In fact, the low NIH post-doc salaries were so scandalously low, that in one action, they were eventually bumped up to $40k. I can think of no other “profession” where salaries would be allowed to get that low before they were adjusted upward. This reflects the lack of clout or useful representation that university research scientists have.

    There are many reseasons university research scientist end up being “second class” employees. Unlike the tenured researchers they often work alongside, they have no job security and too often the tenured colleagues do not work vigorously to protect the untenured. This creates a two-tier system that reduces moral.

    4. Research scientists have very little clout on campus. They are not well represented, do not participate in any administrative meetings, and are typically not unionized. Further, by their nature (often more concerned with research questions than with politics) they are, by personality, not well equipped to advocate for themselves. This is exacerbated by the many Asian hires in academia, who tend not to want to rock the “political boat” due to their cultural dictims. I once mentioned to Harvard scientist that, from my POV, American universities exploit Asian and other foreign researchers by offering insecure and relatively low-paying post-doc positions. Her response was a bland one: “Well, they exploit us by their desire for a Green Card”. No lofty motives here.

    Post-docs and researcher scientists do not and cannot effictively advocate for themselves. This is a complex issue, due to multiple factors. First, many scientists, being attracted by research questions for “truth”, lack social sophistication or entreprenurialism to look after their financial well-being. It is simply a lower priority to them when compared to that of most businessmen, doctors, or laywers. This may be due in part because of the temperment of the researchers. But universities do not help, as they never go out of their way to advocate for science careers or pay increases. These folks are also not given the means of advocating because they have little or no effective representation among the campus hierachy. Tenured professors have monthly department meetings and can pipeline concerns to the Dean. Researchers have not such meetings and are often isolated frome one another. They have no means of pushing their agenda forward and Universities seem content with this.

    Insecure “contingent” positions are being more and more dominated by foreign-born Ph.D.s who not only work hard, but also may be looking for a better life in the U.S. As suggested above, this makes them vulnerable and also weakens the general clout of those positions. Fewer U.S. students are attracted to labs because of the low salaries and anxiety of job insecurity. I cannot blame them, but our reliance on foreign sources for the conduct of research is embarrassing and should concern those who care about our nation’s ability of its own students to conduct research.

    Sadly, I see few forces willing to correct this problems. One simple solution would be to reward researchers with “investiture” by providing increasing degrees of hard-money support as they prove their value in soft-money positions over the years. This is an old idea, but one that is often ignored by academic leaders.

    While I have had a some-times rewarding career in science research, I would not recommend it to students as it is too stressful, is not properly rewarded with good salaries, and is not well-respected by university leaders. I would love to see efforts that would prove they points wrong, but over my 20 years in the business, have only seen the negative trends become more entrenched.

  14. Not all science is done at academic institutions. I spent a career in the industrial world doing science. A lot of it. Some of it very basic, some of it very applied. Yes, in industry we use the scientific method. If you want to be a scientist and be well compensated at the same time, you might choose the industrial route rather than the academic route. There are positives and negatives for both career paths. In either case you will put that PhD to work. That is what being a scientist is all about.

  15. It’s funny that there is so much hidden aggression/animosity for not getting government funding for researching something that produces nothing. Yes… knowledge is great. Curiosity is fantastic. But, using taxpayer dollars to pay for it when many of us are just trying to make ends meet? I don’t think so.

    I don’t care if you have PhD’s, Master’s Degrees, or multiple of each. If you’re going to right an article complaining because someone won’t pay you to produce nothing, then you’re nothing more than a disgruntled beggar wearing colorful robes at graduation.

    1. “researching something that produces nothing”. Hmmm.

      I’m currently working with a team to replace dying neurons in the auditory (hearing) nerve to restore hearing in deaf people. The research is very complex, but progress is being made. Seems to me to be a worthwhile pursuit. I wonder when you would decide that this is foolish work.

      The attitude that you have to “produce” is pretty dangerous and toxic to the pursuit of science. You’re complaining about people who make way less than doctors or lawyers (and the latter category may do worse than “producing nothing”) or most business men.

      The NIH and other government funders have being pushing for “results-oriented” work for decades. Only about 10% of new grant proposals get funded.

      There is a HUGE problem with results-oriented research: You’ll ask a narrower set of questions for fear of not translating the results into profit.

      The other obvious point is the the government steps in to fund things that cannot or won’t be done by profit-motivated businesses. Like science. Furthermore, private research seldom gets published anymore… it gets patented and becomes unavailable to the public. I would not like living in that scenario — no publicly funded research. I’m not sure that you would, either.

      Yes, we can go that way, but it isn’t really science. It is closer to engineering and applied science.

      (and, just for the record, I will never “right” an article)

  16. “The other obvious point is the the government steps in to fund things that cannot or won’t be done by profit-motivated businesses. Like science. ”

    Yeah, that great. From the article:

    “Every year Congress gives the National Science Foundation roughly 7.3 billion dollars. That sum hasn’t changed much (in real terms) for decades.”

    Also great. So what’s your complaint? You want even more money? Get in line. The US federal government is expected to run budget deficits of ~$500 billion for the next five years. That’s 14% of the current $3.7 trillion budget. This kind of monetary incontinence can’t last forever.

    Da money done runned out.

    1. Well, Capitalist Roader…You have an emphatic way of stating your case (not to mention your emphatic name), so I’m guessing you are not going to worry along with me, but still — I DO think that one reason we have a government is to promote the common good. We all do better when we have roads, when we have parks, when we have schools, when we have prisons, when we have clean air, safe food, drinkable water. Things that serve us all, protect us all, make our lives safer don’t always attract private capital. Some things we do together because otherwise they won’t get done.
      Basic research, I think, serves the common good. It expands what we know. When we know more, inevitably we can do more. The do-ers, the entrepeneurs you probably admire, will find all kinds of ways to turn ideas into wealth. But the ideas need to keep coming for the wealth to keep growing. You worry that “da money done runned out”. I worry that “da ideas done run out.”
      So I guess we worry differently.

      1. Robert Krulwich, I suspect our worries are identical. After stating up front that taxpayer-provided funds for basic science hasn’t been cut over the decades, you lament “…look at that Defense Department number. It’s way bigger than any other nation’s.”

        Apples/oranges. US defense spending has been cut by half in real terms compared to 1960, The fact that “it’s way bigger than any other nation’s” isn’t the metric. The quantity of taxpayer dollars transferred to both basic science and defense reflect voter’s priorities. Over the past 50 years voters decided to cut defense spending in half but keep basic science funding exactly the same .

        What’s your complaint? You want taxpayers to shell out even more money for basic science? Again, get in line. Mandatory spending—Social Security/Medicare/interest payments— is squeezing out discretionary spending, both defense and non-defense. And that is just going to get worse. Be happy that spending on your pet program hasn’t been slashed yet for it almost certainly will in the coming decades.


  17. Surely the reason there aren’t more scientists is that the five meter isopods make potential applicants nervous.

  18. Science hasn’t started yet. Gotta clean the fraud first. Time to throw away silly equations and faith–those aren’t science! Should be all better soon.

    Do your experiments people! Looks like Newton and Einstein are out. Relativity is out. Gravity is out. Electromagnetism, Free Energy, and Nikola Tesla are the new science.

  19. Many of us have long come to compromise that we must make our research at least parially applied (which in biology means medical).

    I’m lucky that the particular curiosity that drives me Is sufficiently close to things that could be medical that I can move my research in that direction without totally losing the chance of answering that curiosity. Whether or not this will be successful for me remains to be seen: I have only.just started my own research group and am as yet unfunded.

    This might seem like a win/win: the scientist gets to do something at least in the general area of their interest and the public gets something for its money. The danger is that when a curiosity driven scientists twists and bend their for to pretend it is of vital medical importance you end up with research that is neither good medical research, nor good basic science.

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