Someone with a high school diploma can expect to start earning anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 a year.

Someone with a B.Sc. who goes to work as a research assistant/technician can expect to earn anywhere from 30,000 to 39,000 a year. The amount varies according to the position, but they’re not going to break that 40,000 a year barrier.

Someone with a M.SC. can expect to earn in the mid-forties range working as a research assistant/technician. If they go for a management position, they can hope to earn in the 50,000’s.

Someone with their PhD can expect to earn somewhere in the 40,000’s during their training years. If they are exceptionally brilliant AND extremely lucky, they can hope to earn an extra 20,000 a year from grants in addition to the stipend their boss pays them (amount and practices may vary from university to university).

On the other hand, an engineer emerging from university with their B.SC. can immediately expect to earn 50,000 a year. With prospects like these, is it any wonder that so many beginning researchers quickly become disillusioned with the system and consider defaulting to medical or law school? Scientific researchers are, by and far, brilliant people, driven, energetic, passionate, curious and very often, innovative. At the beginning of their academic careers, they are attracted to the simultaneous orderliness and inherent chaos of research.

They are inspired by the prospect of something benefiting mankind coming out of the (their) ploddingly slow pace of research. And then I hate to say it, but reality hits. I don’t mean here the reality of expecting to live in poverty for the next twenty years, struggling to pay off a big student loan debt on an income on the lower end of mediocrity. I also don’t mean the realization that a professorship is far out of most researchers’ grasp, not to mentioned that even those who attain a professorship struggle to become tenure track (in 2010, there was a neuroscientist who shot and killed several of her colleagues after being denied tenure again). Even those who make it to tenure still have to compete with a younger and younger crowd every year for an ever shrinking pool of government funding (because of course, in academia, God forbid you take money from industry – those big corporations will insidiously sully your academic integrity – on the other hand, private donations are free game). While established professors have a leg up on younger, struggling researchers, there is one area in which eventually older researchers will lag behind – the understanding and incorporation of new technologies in their lab. Ironically, while the younger researchers are probably better equipped at understanding and utilizing new technology, it is the older researchers who have the funds to purchase such technologies.

Sometimes, one enters academia knowing and understanding the dismal chances of success. Then what happens to change one’s mind? Growing up. The thoughts of starting a family. The desire to settle down somewhere instead of flitting from university to university, hoping for a better post doc position, for that offer of professorship or tenure. The race to publish (or perish) takes a toll on one eventually, whether emotionally, mentally, physically or at the cost of health and family connections. Every professional works hard in their chosen fields, and researchers are no exception. Part of the problem and the reason for the disparity between the salaries of a research assistant and that of a newly graduated engineer is that of course, engineering is a business whereas research falls into that cloudy, grey area between surviving on government charity,  even more so at the whim of the economy than commercial corporations, and being an ivory tower of prestige and respect.

What I see it as, is that the government does not value researchers. It’s true that very little comes out of research for the amount of money and resources that go into it, but part of that is the way academic research is structured. It takes a thousand failures to produce one small success to contribute to science. It’s a little known, and little appreciated, fact outside of scientific research. Only the successes are celebrated, are published. The failures are doomed to be repeated by lab after lab after lab, wasting resources, money, time, graduate students, technicians and post docs. Perhaps the worse thing is that natural, scientific curiosity dies quickly under this bleak atmosphere. Research is not a business, because if so, those who invest in research labs are, well, out of their capitalistic minds, because a financial return is highly unlikely. The distribution of grants operates like a business, however, but the problem then is that only those who are able to publish, and publish in high impact journals, are able to receive grants to continue research. That means that only safe ideas are ever investigated, because to explore a novel idea is risky if it doesn’t work out. It could mean the end of your career, and the end of the current livelihood of those you’ve employed. Or, even worse, you get the following cycle (mostly from established professors who’ve wisely learned how to “game” the system): perform the experiment before you apply for the grant, then once you get the grant, publish the experiment and use the money to fund the next branching experiments.

But it’s still true that the government and the public at large does not value scientific research and those who conduct it. Otherwise, why would they earn so little? Why else would their prospects of increasing income be nil as compared to other jobs? Why else would there be such low job and financial security?

But is it wrong? That’s a more complicated question to answer. It’s easy to say “Of course it is!” but the answer is more complicated than that. Unlike small businesses and corporations, research does not generate very many jobs. They require a lot of money, a lot of resources. (An economist would probably point out that when labs spend grant money purchasing equipment from companies, they’re in turn funding the industry, but further links and contributions to the national economy is beyond my current comprehension.) Remember, research would fail as a business simply because the rate of success is so prohibitively low. When money is tight for a country, arts funding is usually one of the first things cut on the budget. Scientific funding isn’t very far off, and in a way, it makes sense – these are not the basic infrastructure of a society. And yet, if a country is to remain strong intellectually through an economic downturn, if a country hopes to retain its intellectuals, it needs to see research as an investment. It needs to value those who conduct research, both those who succeed and those who fail, and it needs to let researchers know that it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to embark on risky projects and fail, because conducting safe projects all the time, while “safe” for your career path, ultimately contributes very little to science. The government needs to accept that, otherwise the slack in research will eventually fall to big pharmaceutical companies, who have the capital to invest in risky ventures, who have the capital to attract, hire and retain out of the box thinkers. The government needs to remember that when potentially valuable intellectual property falls into the hands of pharmaceutical companies, Big Pharma will apply to the government for grants to fund clinical trials, then charge through the nose for the usage of proven drugs. In Canada, because thank God, healthcare is considered a basic human right, the bill unfortunately goes to our government.

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