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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
It happens like this: firstly, at eighteen, unsuspecting but bright young students decide to start undergraduate degrees in science. By graduation, a few top students will want to do research full time, for life. So, on to graduate studies, either via an M.Sc. program, or directly into doctoral studies. Typically this involves a limited number of classes, followed by full-time work for between three and five years. Afterwards, the best of the best will receive post-doctoral fellowships. This means a twofold salary increase, for a limited contract typically of two years. Thus, after ten years of science, one has the privilege of earning less than someone with a one-year community college diploma. The anaemic salary is nicely complimented by long hours, the threat of funding cuts, and non-existent job security.
Concomitant with the above is a series of weird and wonderful moves. Scientists are discouraged from staying in the same place for too long, with the logic being that one can only learn so much from a limited local pool. Let us thus be generous and say that a scientist did their bachelor's and master's degrees at the same university. It is then time to move on for a doctorate, to city two. Following Ph.D. studies the 'student'-no-longer will presumably run as fast and far from their old master as possible, on to bigger and better things as a postdoc in city three. Permanent postdoc is a synonym for academic death, so eventually it is time to move again. If the postdoc performs exceptionally, then they may be hired directly into a junior faculty position, in whatever city-four it is that they're lucky enough to find a job. Ideally, one then waits in the shadows for one's dream job to come up, applies with one's outstanding record, and moves to city five, the final resting place. Needless to say, a twenty-grand salary and nomadic behaviour tend to put some pressure on family life.
Meanwhile, scientific progress is stifled. Unsurprisingly, one is not particularly efficient while fretting about the next stepping stone or lack thereof. This is further helped by a culture of resume-bullets, where ten rubbish papers benefit the author more than one serious contribution, especially early in one's career. Interested in attacking an extremely difficult and important problem? How about a giant heap of rinky-dink garbage instead.
Why are conditions in science so miserable? The ultimate cause is that, unfortunately, research is not well supported by capitalism. The return on investment in physics is on the fifty-year timescale. Shareholders are interested in quarterly returns, and politicians are, for the most part, not interested. If a Chinese scientist were to say: "We can develop amazing solar cells, but it will take fifty years of sustained funding", their government would say: "Done." Consequently, China is the number one investor in renewable energy worldwide. One has trinkets and troedel such as smartphones and twitter that rely on quantum-mechanical and computer-scientific progress from our parents' and grandparents' generations. When one buys a computer, one should have to pay for research that will yield fruit for one's children's and grandchildren's generations. Or perhaps a reevaluation of priorities and values is in order, to ensure that taxpayer money is actually paying for the things that we want, such as a sustainable future with a reasonable level of equality. —Furious
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