The Social Status of Scientists

November 28th, 2011 by Potato

A bit of a strange article in the Globe says that: “Mr. Cowen believes that overcoming stagnation will require an increase in the social status of scientists relative to other professions, so that our best and brightest will not prefer law or finance or view university science and math as a prerequisite for careers in medicine or dentistry.” I don’t think the social status of scientists is the problem, unless that’s code for “paying them better and revamping the career path.”

Now, I could probably get behind a “science tax” but I don’t think it has a snowball’s chance in hell in the real world. Heck, it would probably be counter-productive, and lead to public outrage against science.

So aside from paying them better, what do you think could be done to “raise the social status” of scientists?

8 Responses to “The Social Status of Scientists”

  1. Michael James Says:

    I’m not clear on what Cowen means either, but paying scientists across the board more money would be a terrible waste. Only a small minority of people are capable of big things and the same is ture in science. Paying mediocre scientists more money would just get us more mediocre papers that change very little. The problem of making science a rewarding career path for talented people is a challenge that I don’t know how to solve.

  2. JP Says:

    Increasing pay will increase interest. Increasing interest will increase competition and allow schools to raise the bar to help filter out mediocre performers. This has been the trend for Medicine, Dentistry and Law. (The higher the grades of the applicants, the higher they can set the cut-off grades.)
    Perhaps though, it’s the prospect of spending all waking hours as a scientist writing applications for money of which every year you have a significantly less chance of obtaining.
    Any way you look at it though, the career path itself appears to be a long hard road, and there are many others that appear to be more lucrative.

  3. Potato Says:

    I don’t have stats on postdoc/scientist pay in Canada, but I know that RAs/grad students are loooooong over-due for an across-the-board pay increase, just to get back to the subsistence level they were at 15 years ago.

    I don’t think we can keep our best and brightest from going into dentistry or law or whatever with money alone, the money just isn’t there to even come close to competing. But you do need to pay people enough that concerns about money fade to the background, and anecdotally I think inflation has eaten away at stipends so much that that’s no longer the case, even for the natural scientists who’d work nearly for free just due to sheer curiosity — even they have to pay the rent and buy food.

    To the best of my knowledge, no other profession has anywhere near the disparity between pay output and training/expertise input that science does, so on that basis I could get behind an across-the-board pay increase. Other factors (perhaps what’s meant by “social status”) could be tweaked instead to help though: even just lengthening the grant/contract cycle might help. Instead of a 1-year contract with no job security at all and wages only a few notches above minimum wage, perhaps a 4-year contract with some job security and wages only a few notches above minimum wage might be enough to tip the scales.

    Science is also one of the fiercest endeavors for promoting the Peter Principle: just when you get your credentials as a bona fide scientist, you almost completely stop doing science so that you can chase grants and teach and become an administrator.

  4. Alex C Says:

    I strongly agree with the dispartiy of pay compared to work and school for scientists. As a research tech I did a 4 year degree (B.Sc.), plus short term job placements (paid at an uber low wage, but it was basically internships), and when I look at my career aspects (without more school) my top reaching salary is not that far off. Compared to engineers (which I would compare to my degree, biochemistry, school wise) there is a huge wage disparity. And that isn’t counting B.Comm kids who sailed through easy courses and get to make tons of money in sales or marketing. Sadly I don’t see this changing. Science is taken for granted, and if you do make lots of money people attack you by saying the money influences your results. Just have to stick it out cause it is super interesting.

  5. Netbug Says:

    Your last statement in your comment was the one that has always confused me the most; you guys have to spend so much time trying to get funding that you don’t have time for sciencing. :(

    I don’t have any solution other than changing the public perception and fighting the RAMPANT anti-intellectualism in society as a whole.

  6. Potato Says:

    [Sorry for those of you whose comments were temporarily held in the moderation queue, the spam filter’s set pretty tight]

    I suppose I’ve been in a school or a social group that doesn’t practice anti-intellectualism so long that I didn’t even consider that a factor.

  7. Netbug Says:

    It drives me bananas. I mean, as an example, I was talking with a chap about the movie U-571 a while ago and he said “Yeah. It’s basically a documentary.” and I corrected him by saying “uhh… no. The British had Ultra thanks to the Polish before the start of WW2 and it was the British that grabbed one from sinking U-559.”

    The response? “Why the hell do you care about knowing that shit? Do you read or something? *laugh*”

    And this is not uncommon. You can also see it very heavily online (just look at youtube comments).

    It’s celebrated. :/

  8. Potato Says:

    I make it a point to never read youtube comments. I fear that might be the trigger that sends me into full mad science the world’s a mess and I just need to rule it mode.