Adventures in Ethics and Science

Over at the DrugMonkey blog, PhysioProf noted that a push to increase NIH postdoctoral fellowship stipend levels by 6% may have the effect of reducing the number of postdoctoral positions available.

To this, the postdoctoral masses responded with something along the lines of, “Hey, it’s possible that there are too damn many postdocs already (and fighting for those rare tenure-track positions in a slightly less crowded field might be better),” and “Being able to pay my damn bills might significantly improve my quality of postdoctoral life.” There were also the expected mentions of the fact that, given their education and experience, the pay in a postdoctoral position is often dramatically less than in private industry.

In a number of comments, though, DrugMonkey pointed out that it is not just postdocs who are paid “less than they are worth” (with respect to education and experience) and frequently living in regions with higher-than-average cost of living. Why should postdocs be singularly worthy of a 6% bump but not PIs, technicians, and grad students, too?

Of course, such across-the-board increases would bump up the budgets required to run research projects, possibly by quite a lot. And in case you hadn’t heard, times are tough for everyone right now.

Then, in that comment thread, becca puts forth a proposal:

Basically, if you are going to argue in favor of pauperizing your lab workers, pauperize them enough so they can get on public Welfare.

Call me an idealist, but when a comparison of academic science and Walmart starts making the big-box giant look like the more humane employer, academic science may want to take a moment to examine its course.

Let’s stipulate that it costs money to do science, and that a significant cost of scientific research is the salaries of the personnel who conduct the research.

As had been noted repeatedly, there seems to be an overabundance of skilled personnel available to conduct that research — not only postdocs, but also graduate students and technicians. No doubt opinions will vary on which category of scientific worker tends to produce the most research bang for each salary (and benefits) buck, but it would not be surprising to discover that PIs tend to minimize the number of higher-salary personnel on a research project in favor of lower-salary personnel.

These personnel, of course, are human beings with both career (and life) aspirations and material needs. They will need food to eat and a place to sleep (and not all will own vehicles in which it is possible to sleep). They will have bodies that occasionally require medical treatments. They may also have partners, children, or parents with material needs with which they must assist. To the extent that grad students and postdocs get something of value (training, experience, and one hopes mentoring) from their labors, perhaps there’s a reasonable argument for remunerating their labors at less than the corresponding private sector rate, but the landlord hardly ever accepts experience when the rent is due.

Ratcheting down salaries to the minimum level the market will bear, especially when that market seems to be awash with people questing for the holy grail that is a tenure track position, may have a significant impact on the ability of the typical newly-minted Ph.D. to pursue a postdoc. Unless one is independently wealthy, it could set up conditions where one has to assume a significant debt load — but where, unlike a medical student, for example, there’s not a well-established loan program to serve you.

Also, unlike medical school, the postdoctoral pipeline offers much lower odds of attaining one’s ultimate career objective. This means that incurring such a debt is a lot riskier all around.

Now, possibly what this means is that the average postdoctoral position is exploitative enough that people should just stop accepting such positions. Knowing that a postdoc is no guarantee that tenure track nirvana will follow, smart people should assess their options, and the costs associated with these options, and make a choice they can live with.

In this kind of climate, PIs would either have to pay non-exploitative postdoc salaries or learn to live without postdocs. And given that PIs don’t live forever, in the absence of conditions where scientists end up doing multiple postdocs as a matter of course, departments could hardly keep requiring postdoctoral research experience of candidates for tenure track jobs.*

This kind of change relies on collective action, though. If enough of the Ph.D.s in the pool decided that postdoctoral positions that pays really badly were still the best available option to further their goals, the PIs wouldn’t have to budge. (Unless those who postdoc for peanuts turn out to be of sufficiently lower “quality”, however PIs measure that, than those who decide that they are unwilling to postdoc under a vow of poverty — in which case PIs might increase salary just enough to attract the level of talent they think they need for their research projects.)

There is also the possibility, though, that PIs could decide that paying the people on their research teams a living wage is the right thing to do, even if the state of the market is such that they could get away with paying less. They might even have a hunch that paying their personnel a living wage could lead to better science — researchers better able to focus on the scientific task (and to do so with integrity) because their default state is not one of being stressed out by living on the economic edge. As we’ve discussed, there is research that points to personal and professional stressors as part of the causal chain that can lead to scientific misconduct. Surely, high baseline levels of fatigue, hunger, anxiety, and/or disgruntlement could result in suboptimal performance in a research group.

But times are hard for everyone right now.

Part of the pain the PI shoulders, then, may come down to figuring out how to get the research done with fewer people (or alternatively, figuring out how to make a persuasive case to funding agencies that their super-important research projects require more funding for personnel).

What if this slows down the progress of the research projects? What if this, in turn, irritates funders and baffles the committees making tenuring and promotion decisions, since those decisions usually turn on measures of research progress?

Well, times are hard for everyone right now.

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*This kind of shift of Ph.D.s away from postdoctoral positions might be a real boon for the private sector. One consequence, however, might be a greater proportion of scientific knowledge produced by the private sector rather than in academic settings. This may put us in a position where we, the public, have to pay more to get any benefit from that knowledge. There’s no shortage of unintentional consequences.

Comments

  1. #1 JohnV
    April 19, 2010

    When I started my post doc 3.5 years ago, I was paid $500 too much to qualify for the counties subsidized housing program.

    Maybe some of the PIs could stop lighting cigars with $100 bills for a minute to contemplate that. (hopefully) Obviously I don’t believe the preceding sentence, but its what I imagine when I see that comment thread full of PIs saying “suck it losers you’re lucky we pay you what we do now go dumpster dive for food”.

  2. #2 A
    April 19, 2010

    “…people should just stop accepting such positions.”
    I observe that many Americans have already decided that, hence the prevalence of foreigners in the natural sciences and engineering graduate schools. (For some of those, the chance for immigration may be a benefit offsetting dismal pay for a few years.) The thing is the free market: as long as all positions are filled, by world-wide recruiting, there is no incentive to improve graduate student or postdoc pay or working conditions. And the number of graduate student/postdoc positions is determined by the need for Teaching Assistants or cheap research assistants, not by the number of expected future faculty openings. It would help if graduate students and post-docs would be better informed of their (minute)chances to win the elusive tenure-track position, but even then, with lesser chances to find industrial employment now, there are enough to accept the existing conditions. So nothing will change. Oh well.
    My children (growing up in the U.S.) have already observed that a science career is hard, and that more money can be made as a corporate lawyer, or if bio-science interested, one should be a M.D.

  3. #3 Dan Hicks
    April 19, 2010

    I can partly understand why more grad students aren’t unionized — the National Labor Relations Board has declared repeatedly that grad student instructors at private universities are students, not employees, and therefore have no right to unionize. But postdocs (due to the short time limits) and grad students at some public universities (whose funding is even more precarious than at big-name private universities) have both the right and pressing interests in unionizing.

    I suppose this is the best evidence that academia isn’t populated by Marxists.

  4. #4 LadyDay
    April 19, 2010

    “As we’ve discussed, there is research that points to personal and professional stressors as part of the causal chain that can lead to scientific misconduct. Surely, high baseline levels of fatigue, hunger, anxiety, and/or disgruntlement could result in suboptimal performance in a research group.”

    “Part of the pain the PI shoulders, then, may come down to figuring out how to get the research done with fewer people (or alternatively, figuring out how to make a persuasive case to funding agencies that their super-important research projects require more funding for personnel).”

    Well, if scientific misconduct is in part due to stressors that also contribute to suboptimal performance, then wouldn’t it make sense for PIs to push for a decrease in these stressors for their lab personnel? It then logically follows that to pay postdocs better and increase quality of life for postdocs (and, come on, PIs should admit that postdocs are the “engine” of much of their research), would most likely help to decrease the levels of scientific misconduct and suboptimal performance in NIH-funded labs.

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    April 19, 2010

    Many years ago, one of my Masters students, who had a teaching assistantship, told me how demeaning his experience of applying for food stamps had been. A little while later, he dropped out and became a successful real estate salesman.

  6. #6 Roman
    April 20, 2010

    “To the extent that grad students and postdocs get something of value (training, experience, and one hopes mentoring) from their labors, perhaps there’s a reasonable argument for remunerating their labors at less than the corresponding private sector rate”

    But private sector offers training as well. I switched from theoretical physics to quantitative finance, and I have an Oxford lecturer sitting in the office one desk away from me, whom I can ask questions about my job basically any time, he’s much more accessible than my PhD advisor was.

    “The thing is the free market: as long as all positions are filled, by world-wide recruiting, there is no incentive to improve graduate student or postdoc pay or working conditions.”

    It’s not a free market. It’s a feudal system supported by the tax payer.

  7. #7 becca
    April 20, 2010

    You know what would make me happy about getting a postdoc at $37k/year? An expectation of a 30 hour workweek. Then, a post-doc organization that helped set up 10h/week paid internships in science writing, pharma, biotech, gov., policy, ect. Solves: too many postdocs going into academia AND postdocs not having enough money (without killing NIH R01 budget- although obviously the amount of research the PIs could expect to squeeze out of their postdocs would be lower- we need to get away from the toxic workaholism there anyway, and it needs to be systematic).
    That, or a Googlestyle benefits package (including childcare and the protected creative time rule!!!).

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 20, 2010

    Dan Hicks @ 3:

    I suppose this is the best evidence that academia isn’t populated by Marxists.

    Not effective Marxists, anyway.

    LadyDay @4, part of the problem, no doubt, is the stressors on the PIs, too — gotta get those grants, produce results, publish in the GlamourMags. It might take a top-down reworking of the standard conditions for academic science to really take the (perceived) reward out of cheating. Shifting the available bits of money from one set of personnel to another may change the incentive structure for some of those personnel somewhat, but it feels like a short-term fix at best.

    Roman @6, I hear ya, although I’m pretty convinced academic science is just one of the realms sold to us as a free market at work where things are pretty unfree (and some of those other pseudo “free” markets may also be propped up by public funds, or at least substantial legal protections).

    becca @7, I find your ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe to your newsletter!

  9. #9 Roman
    April 20, 2010

    @JDS

    “academic science is just one of the realms sold to us as a free market at work where things are pretty unfree (and some of those other pseudo “free” markets may also be propped up by public funds, or at least substantial legal protections).”

    Well, after the bailout of AIG, what can I say…

  10. #10 Roman
    April 21, 2010

    @JDS

    I agree about “they did it too”, but the problem is that a) even science was a genuine free market, would it be really what we want? and b) all systems exploit people, but some do it in a more pleasant way. The university system was created in the Middle Ages and kind of stuck there. I read posts on phdcomics forum saying that we shouldn’t expect professors to have skills at managing people. I think this is seriously wrong. Managing people is largely about getting people to do what you want without making them hate you. Capitalist economy had to develop managment as a skill because it could not rely on the feudal state to supply it with serfs. Academic science is run on a feudal basis, so it ignores the management part, because it can afford to… for now. Wiser institutions profit from it, snatching educated people and putting them to their use. Do you know why investment banks can make their analysts and quants work such long hours? Because these guys worked even longer hours, for much less pay, when they were doing their postdocs and PhDs.

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