The Problem of Slavery in Science

June 13th, 2013 by Potato

Jenn recently linked to an interesting article about post-doc pay, and how the low pay (and other issues, like the constant moving and uncertainty and short-term contracts and lack of benefits) right at the point where women’s fertility starts to drop is one factor keeping them out of science. Go and read that article, but I think this goes well beyond just women in science, post-docs and starting families.

I keep thinking of ways to dramatically reshape the way we do science. They may not be practical, but I like thinking outside the box from time to time.

One set of related ideas I keep coming back to are the issues of compensation and focus. Grad students and post-docs are paid terribly. How terrible? Well, in my department grad students made about $14k-16k as a base stipend (and that level has not changed in almost two decades, inflation be damned), top students with national scholarships could take home about $33k. Yes, per year, with restrictions on seeking outside work. This is in part because they are said to be trainees who are learning how to be proper scientists. Except if they make it through the funnel and up the pyramid, or whatever visual metaphor you may choose, they teach and write grants and supervise — skills they are largely not being taught.

So the idea I toss around is that of a permanent post-doc, or professional bench scientist: a position for someone who will spend their life doing hands-on research, and who gets paid a professional salary for it.

Along with that would be wage/stipend increases for grad students: there is a lot of catching up to do just to get back to the inflation-adjusted level of poverty they were at a decade ago, let alone getting to the point where it is recognized that they are the driving force behind science, and that a senior PhD student is a professional with years of training and specialized expertise making less than minimum wage. One related option might be to shorten PhD programs — it runs the risk of devaluing the degree, but did the 4th and 5th years of my own slog through grad school add much to my development as a scientist that the 2nd and 3rd years did not already? How has the average time to graduation changed over the past couple of decades?

It’s a tough issue, and would represent massive disruptive changes, with no real advocate to push for it. I’m really not even sure myself if these wild speculations I sometimes have are worth any further consideration at all. I mean, even if that is a place we wanted to move to, how would we possibly get there?

In a sense, science is powered by slave labour. If we restricted entry into grad school so that a higher percentage of PhDs could stay in academia (and let the industries that end up hiring PhDs instead hire MSc grads or some newly-created in-between research-intensive 3-4 year expert degree); or reduced the graduation hurdle so that they only did 2 experiments instead of 3, and graduated before 31 years of age — or really any change along those lines — we would limit the amount of science that could get done on current budgets. Unless we truly were able to hire more efficient and productive talent (or focus and dedicate the talent we have) with the increased compensation, the fact is that less research would get done for today’s research budget. This seems an insurmountable problem.

Then I thought, what if instead of thinking of slavery as a harsh verbal rhetoric, I looked at it as an actual model? After all, that problem has been solved. Slavery doesn’t exist in the modern civilized world, but did at some point in our past. Many countries weaned themselves off, with the US having a particularly dramatic and definite end to the practice after the Civil War. How did the transition work out then? What lessons can we learn for transitioning the economic model of science? Unfortunately I’m not enough of a historian to say, so I will have to end here as some food for thought.

Comments are closed.