Why scientists have to work for free

Scientists are one of the only highly respected professions which society expects to work for free.  Not completely for free, of course, but any research scientist can tell you all about the work they do for no pay at all.

Take me for example.  I have a full-time, 9-month tenure track appointment at a research university.  This is pretty much the best case scenario for a 30-year-old scientist such as myself.  The 9-month part means that my university pays me a full time salary 9 months out of every year (the academic year).  I am not paid for the summer months.  This does not, however, mean I can just not work during the summer.  In order to get tenure, I need to obtain grants and publish papers.  The summer, during which I am not teaching, is my main block of time during which I can conduct research, develop grant proposals, and write and publish scientific papers.  If I was to not work over the summer, there is no way I would be able to earn tenure.  If I don’t earn tenure within 5 years, then I’m fired.

I can earn pay for some of the summer months, by obtaining research grants that include some summer salary.  But grant proposals are the most egregious example of how scientists are expected to work for free.  To put together a good grant proposal, with a reasonable chance of success, can take 2-4 weeks of full time work.  It usually takes much longer because I can’t dedicate 2-4 weeks to just writing a grant proposal.  A successful grant proposal requires a well thought out, well researched, novel and interesting idea.  It also generally requires some “preliminary results” to prove that the idea works.  So I have to do a large part of the science I’m proposing to do just to try to obtain the money to do it.  And grant proposals have a success rate of roughly 25%, so 75% of the time all that free work I did amounts to nothing.  Even if I do get that grant, a typical NSF grant pays for 1 month of summer pay for each of 3 summers, after which it ends.  So that means scientists are constantly writing grant proposals, usually 2-4 per year.

I know of many scientists who do not have the benefit of 9-month appointments like I do.  Some researchers are responsible for obtaining anywhere from 50-100% of their pay from grants.  That’s right, some scientists are hired into “jobs” that come with no pay whatsoever, and they then have to constantly apply for money to pay themselves.  These are called “soft money” positions.

I understand the importance of the grant proposal system.  It is a mechanism to direct limited public science funding to the projects deemed most promising by panels of experts, and it prevents scientists from becoming lazy and no longer pursuing new and promising ideas.  But we would be incentivized to participate in the grant proposal system even if we were paid year-round.  That’s because grants are also used to pay graduate student researchers, to purchase equipment, to pay for scientific conference travel, and to pay for publication fees and other research expenditures, in addition to being required for promotion and tenure.

Another example of how scientists are expected to work for free is peer review.  Every scientific paper and proposal goes through peer review, meaning it is critically read and evaluated by 2-5 other scientists.  Those peer reviewers typically spend anywhere from 2-8 hours reviewing a paper or proposal, completely for free.  In fact, in the case of a paper, the author pays the journal fees in the range of $2,000-$5,000, not one penny of which goes to the peer reviewers for their work.  And we can’t even take credit for peer review, because it’s meant to be anonymous and confidential.  So this is work we’re expected to do for free, out of professional ethical obligation, for no pay or recognition whatsoever.  If one refuses to participate in peer review, that person obtains a strongly negative reputation with journal editors and grant program managers, which can be professionally very damaging.

There is a saying in research science that no one chose this career for the pay.  And it’s true, the vast majority of researchers could make more money by applying their skills in a more lucrative industry.  Our salaries aren’t enormous, especially considering the number of years of education it requires to become a research scientist.  We’re here because we believe our work is important and valuable to society.  And I believe our time and work should be valued enough that we are paid for it.  For all of it, not just during the academic year.

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