17. Clearing the air about rich scientists.

First, a review.  I spent two years getting a Master’s Degree, six years on a PhD, and four more years as a post-doc.  During the Master’s, I borrowed money to make ends meet, often from my brother.  During the PhD, my stipend ($12,000/year) covered our rent and my wife had a full-time job.  (That stipend was a result of me having to obtain my own grant money and from being a TA in my advisor’s classes.)  For three years of my post-doc experience I was paid about $25K from a short-term federal grant.  THEN, after 12 years of research experience, I was incredibly lucky to get a REAL job as a tenure-track professor at a small university for the incredible sum of $39K/year.  Yes, I had made it as a scientist!  And after 14 years, I became a Full Professor, at the top of the professional pile, my salary has not even doubled.

So, let’s be clear: no one, NO one, went into science to make money.  There is no money in science, and our State and Federal elected officials see to that. I have a salary; all scientists have salaries.  I have a 9-month contract as do all scientists and faculty at universities.  Only a very few research scientists have 11-12 month contracts (but they often are not protected by tenure).  That means that I “get my summers off” from the heavy burden of having to cash a paycheck for 6 pay periods.  Of course, I have options.  I can get an hourly job during the summer, like at the grocery store with my students.  I can teach classes during the summer IF I can attract enough students to fill the class, which is getting harder and harder to do now that online “learning” has come along.  Oh, and those summer classes cost the students $1200-1600 each and often aren’t covered by financial aid.  Or I can write a grant and use that money to get rich quick, right?

But there’s a catch.  I have a salary and I can only be paid from a grant at my salaried rate.  As a state employee, I am prohibited from making more than my salary.  I also can’t write two grants and get paid from both of them at the same time- that’s called double dipping isn’t it?  And grant agencies, especially federal, insist that most of the salary money goes to grad students and post-docs, not to Principal Investigators, whose real job is to train the next generation of scientists.  The absolute most I can get from a grant is the three months in the summer that I am not getting paid by my institution, and ONLY at my salaried rate.

What’s that you say? Some researchers get paid exclusively from grant money (soft money)?  Yes, they do and that terrifies most of them because if they don’t get grant money they don’t get paid and, in the case of faculty, they won’t have a job much longer.  The competition for that money is so stiff that only 10% of the applicants get funded.  AND the grants that are funded are always pared down to the bare minimum as the PIs are asked to do more with less.  The review panels would LOVE to give more money to science, but Congress (usually) doesn’t think science needs to be funded quite to the degree other parts of our economy do like, say, the military and the oil industry.  So scientists scramble constantly for the very few dollars that are available.  This economic strategy is to protect the public from ravenous hordes of scientists who want to feed at the trough of taxpayer’s money

Well, then who does make money from federal grants?  Oh, that would be NON-scientists like Halliburton, GE, and other FOR-PROFIT private interests who get massive grants and subsidies, sometimes without having to compete for them.  Oh, and THEY get to use the money to lobby and advertise to prevent anyone from taking away the money they get to lobby and advertise to get more money.

To be honest, universities receive a good chunk (about 1/3) of every grant as “indirect costs” that are not earmarked for anything.  Universities LOVE grants because they get some non-earmarked cash, but that money is used for other university business, like in-house grants, scholarships, start-up funds, and student support, and NOT for fattening faculty paychecks.  In fact, my fourth year as a post-doc was funded from indirect costs from grants.

So, all of the fatheads who claim that scientists love grants because it pays for their beach houses are speaking from a different orifice than their mouth. Scientists are as dedicated as public school teachers are to their avocation.  They love doing science, they love discovery, and they absolutely are not in it for the money.  Which is a good thing because THERE ISN’T ANY.  If we were the sort of people motivated by money, we would have gotten business degrees or become politicians.