The cost of science

In the current economic state everything gets boiled down to the bottom line. How many discoveries are we missing? More importantly, how many young scientists, like myself, see the battles our professors wage and think, “Ah, hell no.”?

I was chatting with a visiting student who is doing research in our lab for several months. She, as well as the other graduate student in my lab all say the same thing. We have no desire to do what our professor does day in and day out.


Being a professor now entails a bit of teaching, a lot of inane meetings, and spending way more than a mere forty hours a week writing grants, re-writing grants and prepping reports if you are lucky enough to have received funding. The stress must be intense, because not only is a professor’s career on the line, the livelihoods of every technician, student, and research assistant depends on him or her.

A professor from my undergraduate university gave a talk here this week for graduate student day.

“Imagine, ” she said, “that Charles Darwin proposed a grant for traveling around for a decade or so just to observe and think about how different species of birds are related. That wouldn’t go over.”

The imaginative out-of-the-box thinking has to take place on our own time while we juggle all the things that pay the bills. Sounds rather like being a writer in many ways.  In fact, she emphasized that the best scientists had outside creative interests which kept that right-left brain balance in check.

My boss is one of those dreamer types. He’s always saying he needs to start a company because grants don’t pay enough, but he has no patience for business and would likely give away a drug if it cured something, rather than charge a hefty price like big pharma. He has endless ideas, many of which he might never get a chance to pursue.

The emphasis on the bottom line, having to work with very little resources, fewer and fewer trained personnel and still deliver high quality data is likely driving the next generation of scientists out of academia.

Why should we teach when the universities want you to water everything down? Why dedicate every ounce of our energy into running a lab when funding has become just as political as Washington?

As both a mother and scientist the state of our society worries me. The decline of the educational system combined with the fiscal squeeze in research are going to cost us much more in the long run than we save by any current spending cuts. I can only hope that we repair our system before it crashes and burns.


4 responses to “The cost of science

  1. The worst part that I see is that basic research can do so much. Yes not every project succeeds. Not every discovery changes society. But it is basic research that can really advance society. It is guys like John Tate who’s work on number theory that led to the encryption we use for internet transactions. He never knew it would do anything but years after doing his work others were able to do something big with it. That is the beauty of basic research, you never know what you will get out of it. It may not pay dividends today or next year but it might pay big in a decade or two. Unfortunately now everything is so driven by results which largely means you can’t spend too much time on basic research. Instead you have to focus on making some product or advancement for profit.

    • southerndreamer

      I agree. There’s SOOO much basic science we still don’t understand. It becomes a matter of attempting to “spin” it so that someone will support your proposed application.

  2. I feel the same in many ways, but just to put the shoe on the other foot, Darwin was a fairly wealthy man who was friends with other wealthy men. All they had to do was ask somebody for money and they’d give it to them as well as a good amount of recognition. Back then NO women were taken seriously on the subject, and if you were poor or even a lower social class you probably weren’t going to get noticed either, even supposing you weren’t busy with manual labor. Gregor Mendel had a few friends pressuring him to publish or else no one would have ever known what he was up to. Maddeningly political though the modern system is, it’s still better than science during Darwin’s day. Darwin himself couldn’t publish until he was almost dead because of the church. Politics have always played a role, both the petty and serious kind.

    As for the state of education, we have much more students enrolled in school now as a percentage of child population than ever before. I think this is a good thing on the whole, but more students means more work for teachers, as well as a higher number of problem students (10% of 10000 is more than 10% of 100). The number of high school graduates is at a four decade high, and while some of this might be number cooking, I think the increase has to be be somewhat indicative of a larger number of more highly educated people. The quality of education may have suffered a small amount, but the total amount of education available on the whole is greater than it’s ever been. Improvements can always be made, but I don’t think the situation is as bad as some make it out to be.

    What I’m more concerned with, and what you’ve touched on here, is the availability of work and the appropriateness of education to the jobs that are available. There aren’t enough professorship positions available for scientists even if they DID all want to be professors, and yet that’s where the conveyor belt that graduate students are on is going. And that’s just one area, the same thing happens in History, Philosophy…just about every subject someone could have interest in. Couple that with the stigma that not going to college has now and I think there’s a definite problem. In College especially, and in high school too there are some kids who are being led down a path that isn’t what they really want, and that’s a major problem. Idle, well educated people are one thing, but angry, idle, and well educated people rarely ever help society.

    • southerndreamer

      Arg….. I had a long reply and browser ate it.
      Anyhoo… not saying it was better way back when. Totally not. The decline in quality is worse than you imagine and is within the last generation. We are the tail end of the improvement.

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