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Time is money – except if you’re a scientist

16 Apr 2016


All-too commonly grants descriptions carry the phrase, “salaries not eligible,” essentially favouring government, academic and other established researchers, over those without full-time positions. And it’s not as if it is easy to get such positions anymore. The days of institutions like the Smithsonian Natural History Museum hiring field biologists are long gone: it has been in a hiring freeze for an extended period. Even ‘tenure-track’ positions at universities are increasingly being handed out in 9-month contracts to avoid paying lecturers over the summer holidays.


Yet independent scientists still need to eat and pay rent. Even having all field expenses paid does not support families, satisfy landlords or pay off student debt. Thus, many individuals desperately trying to build scientific careers are forced to work unpaid on their research while working other “normal” jobs. Consequently, many early career scientists cannot spend as much time or effort pursuing their professional goals as they would like. Moreover, covering publication costs can sap yet more time in funding applications. The result is that their publication rates suffer, and their next application will be less competitive with that of someone lucky enough to be enjoying a rare post-doc (possibly through academic nepotism).


So the pressure builds to take on yet more unpaid work with others (with funds to publish) to fill the publication gaps. This increases workload and makes it difficult to meet deadlines set by others. This often leads to receiving frequent ‘reminders,’ chasing efforts on various projects. Apologies may be met with light-hearted jabs from established colleagues, “You only have 3 papers to review and 2 to write? I have twice that, plus grading and a thesis to go over!” This is an unfair comparison when they can work on such things as part of their paid job.

Such ‘banter’ is hurtful; and not just personally. Emails among co-authors or, worse still, notes on social media may be portraying the independent researcher as unreliable. This damages their professional reputation, which they are desperately trying to build, leading to self-defeating prioritisation of co-authors projects over their own.


Increasingly, independent scientists are experimenting with crowdfunding to fill the gap. However, with few, if any, funder perks to offer, such funding is typically very limited and amounts to begging for money. It is likely that friends and family can only be pressed a limited number of times before this funding source also dries up.

The extended working hours also carry huge costs to social and family life, as well as well-being. Ultimately, many simply give up. How many brilliant minds have been lost to our profession in this way to the detriment of science and conservation? This seems incredibly inefficient and wasteful, as people with post-graduate degrees (and their supervisors) have already invested so much in their chosen field.  Surely it makes sense to invest a little more in them to keep them wholly in the field?


Azoulay et al. (2015) noted that science is often held back by established scientists suppressing new ideas from less established individuals. The current funding model exacerbates the situation by hindering younger scientists from even conduct their work in the first place.


The reduction in new hires (including retiree replacements) at institutes and universities has created an enormous gap in the system. Thus, funding organisations must reconsider their position on salary payments, even for small grants and funds. Those lucky enough to have paid academic positions also need to be more considerate of those who are less fortunate, yet continue to pursue science and conservation goals.


I understand the funders’ desire to see grants directly support great science or conservation projects. But isn't it investing money in the people conducting that work also supporting science and conservation? Wages may not be as glamorous or sexy as some fancy new machine that does some academic magic, but they are equally, if not more, important. After all, the work is not going to do itself.


Thanks to Mel Cosentino and Leslie Walsh for their help on putting this article together.


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