Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Encouraging science

kw: science, scientists, rewards, athletes

In an old "Wizard of ID" strip, the knight asks the king why athletes are paid millions while scientists are poorly paid. The king answers, "Would you pay to watch a scientist?" In a more recent strip, the king asks a youngster what he wants to be. The child answers "A college professor." The king asks, "What are you doing to prepare yourself?", and the kid says, "Working two days a week."

Scientific and technical productivity in the U.S. continue to fall. Every week I see more articles listing the ratio of new PhD's of American birth compared to foreign, and that those born elsewhere are increasingly choosing to return home to work. As attested by the ongoing Olympics (which I am enjoying immensely), we are getting what we pay for: more and better athletes. We are running neck and neck with China in the medal count, in spite of having one-fifth the population, and, now a slightly smaller gross economy. And China has been investing heavily in its athletes for propaganda purposes. They are taking the place of the USSR in a new Cold War (another subject I'll have to defer until I've thought about it some more).

But the fastest-growing group of new millionaires in the U.S. has been, for more than a century, professional athletes. John L. Sullivan was the first sports figure to earn a million dollars, in the 1880s. A recent contract for Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels totalled $144 million for six years.

Prior to the days of John L. Sullivan, some scientists were real celebrities. Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday were very popular scientific lecturers, and there were many more. In 1890 C. V. Boys published Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and the Forces Which Mould Them, a compendium of his lectures using a "magic lantern", a type of projector. The book is still in print. A few more recent scientists have achieved celebrity status, most notably Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan. More recently, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a rising star.

Quick, how many famous, living scientists can you name? Was there anybody not on the list above? Now, how many famous, living athletes can you name? Was it more than ten, twenty, or even more? The number of players in big-league baseball, the NFL, NHL and NBA totals about 3,500. Baseball's minor leagues add another 4000, which are at least locally famous, though they don't earn millions. Those 3,500 nearly all do earn millions yearly. What do we spend on professional sports? Ten or twenty billions? If you add in their endorsement contracts, it is almost incalculable.

What would be the result if a top scientist could earn a million dollars yearly? Sure, some top schools pay "full professors" up to a quarter million yearly, though the average is far lower. There are 1.6-1.7 million post-secondary teachers in the U.S. Those on the Tenure track (about a third) are doing most of the research. A smaller number of those who have Tenure still do research; they don't have to. And they are the reason for the kid's retort to the king above.

There is a way that some scientists earn more than academia pays. They form companies. Sometimes it works, but administering the business detracts from their own research. For many, it is a way to give up your research and go broke. Is it worthwhile allowing the scientist whose work leads to a commercial product to participate in the profits, without leaving academia?

Scientists working for larger corporations with research departments might get a bonus for obtaining a patent, but I think they ought to get a percent of the profits for a product based on that patent. What would that do for our national scientific productivity?

And what of those who do the "blue sky" research that doesn't lead to "products"? Astronomers and particle physicists come to mind. The salary budget for the use of big-ticket instruments such as the Keck telescopes or the LHC needs to be commensurate with what it cost to build it.

You get what you reward. When our researchers are again our heroes, and appropriately compensated, we will get more of them, and the best work will get better.

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