Thursday, August 7, 2014

For the Love of the... Rant

For the Love of the Job Rant

As much as I find *some* of Slate's articles to be above-averagely interesting and thoughtful, I seldom manage to motivate myself to dredge through their increasingly link-baity pages (oh so much worse since they renovated their site), so it's nice when I am saved the trouble by someone sending me a link. And this one is right up in my wheel house:

"So You're A Science Ph.D. How Good Are Your Job Prospects Really?"

There were two initial reactions to the title alone: a sarcastic snort, and the kind of stomach roll you used to get when you remembered that you had a maths test the next day. However despite the foreboding that this would be a glib piece about how "those scientists aren't as bad off as they say" I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was rather the opposite. It's always nice to get confirmation of ones own views...

In fact it is a response to an article that I suspect was written as a (possibly smug) contrarian jab at the doom and gloom surrounding the state of science funding and employment anywhere where people wear lab coats or jockey pipettes. The author (Jordan Weissmann) has a background in business and economics, and so it is rather touching to see him going in to bat for scientists who can feel increasing alienated from the conversations going on in the rest of the room. Browsing the articles written by the author in his previous post at The Atlantic ( the topic is within his well-worn stomping ground, but no less worthy for that (naturally form my perspective).

It should also be no surprise given my age and stage of career that the climate for research jobs at the moment is a topic I am familiar with. A waking up in cold sweats kind of familiarity.

The parlous state of research and especially research funding (described as my current supervisor as "academic triage - trying to keep as many researchers barely alive as possible) is not a entirely novel topic to turn up hidden away in the mainstream media, however one particular, very important, point is often papered over: scientists continue to surrender blood, sweat, and tears, ignoring all rational warning signs and against all odds, in order to pursue a incredibly challenging and seldom lucrative career because they love what they do.

With a brand of enthusiasm, energy and naivety that is institutionally exploited.
So much so that it has become indoctrinated into the culture. A vast amount of work and data in the current system is generated by volunteer undergraduate students, below-poverty wage graduate students or untenured researchers who are underemployed, unable to secure sufficient or any funding, or in a growing number of anecdotal cases, working for free so as to stay in contact with the field in the hopes that legitimate work eventually arises.
Even when gainfully employed scientists are expected to work long, exhausting hours, battling lack of funds, rabid competition and the inevitable stress of defense of ideas and peer scrutiny. Supervising students, attending conferences, writing and reviewing papers, after-hours lab work, reading, writing and reading again, and seldom more than 2-3 years away from project collapse if the next round of funding doesn't eventuate. 

Granted this is not a landscape entirely unique to those in professional research, there are many parallels between a career in science and a career as an artist, living commission to commission hoping one day for a patron to pick you up and secure your future. What scientists don't have, however, is any degree of sympathy or support from the general public (indeed cuts to science funding are generally ignored by the world at large). Yet everyone is familiar with the trope of the struggling artist, suffering for their work. And I suspect that in many instances it is this recognition that establishes private support for the arts and individual artists to a degree that science has not seen for over one hundreds years. There is a further non-parallel between science and art that is frustrating: scientists are almost never able to sit on the sidewalk with a sign saying "will extract DNA and run protein assay for cash" or take over the local cafe or converted loft space to showcase their pipetting skills.

Before I am hailed with ballet shoes or stabbed with paintbrushes, let me make it clear: I am not advocating that private donors should be making a decision between supporting a starving artist or a starving scientist. For two reasons: 1. small grants are (unfortunately) rarely going to be enough to establish a scientific career with associated research costs, and 2. (as noted in the Slate article in question) the level of education of most career-attempt scientists does provide a degree of backup should the worst come to the worst and the individual has to convert their lab coat into a parachute and bail. Unless large amounts of money are involved (as indeed the Gates' and Packards' do) it is almost not worth the time. What is needed is recognition from government, corporations or maybe groups of investors that science is not a directly self-funding exercise (although dollars generated through science far exceed input), that blue sky/non-cure-for-cancer research is essentially the base for much of the worlds progress and that many of the worlds sharpest minds are being lost to more reliable (but ultimately less productive) jobs, and ultimately, that the current system is broke and exploiting a valuable resource in an unsustainable way.

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