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#SciSpends : Scientists are paying to do their jobs

edd_headshotDr. Edward Hind is a marine sociologist who specializesin the research of local ecological knowledge. He has spent the last five years investigating how the knowledge of fish harvesters may support marine management in both Ireland and the Turks and Caicos Islands. He was recently a lecturer at the School for Field Studies and is the current Communications Officer of the Marine Section of the Society for Conservation Biology. Having returned to his native UK, Edd is currently looking for new teaching and research opportunities. He has authored peer-reviewed papers in a number of fisheries management and marine policy journals. Follow him on twitter here

My name is Edd and I’m a postdoctoral academic. In the last 12 months I have spent (US)$307 on conference travel, $300 on conference fees, $76 on printing a conference poster, $150+ on non-alcoholic food and drink whilst at conferences, $60 on memberships of professional societies, $35 on academic software, and almost $100 on academic books. That’s over $1000 of my own money. I have a problem. If you’re a scientist, I bet it’s your problem too.

I didn’t used to have a problem. “50 dollars for a cab? Sure.” “Let me pay for your dinner.” “The conference is in Cape Town? Sweet!” A thousand dollars wasn’t much to me in my former career as a financial analyst. Earning about $40000 I was no Gordon Gecko or Wolf of Wall Street, but neither was I expected to pay to do my job. If I needed to get to a meeting quickly I’d take the fastest transport. If I had to try and impress a potential client, I was allowed to charge it to my corporate Amex. If I needed to tell the world about a new product, my company would set up a booth at an international trade fair. A thousand dollars was therefore 0% of my income. As a scientist recently earning about $20000, it was 5% of my income. Planning for a family, that’s a problem.

I’ve struggled with this problem. I’ve asked myself, “Should I really be spending my own money on career development and dissemination of research?” Family is #1 for me and I don’t want to compromise that. I want holiday to be a visit to Disneyworld with them rather than a visit to Cedar Rapids on my own. But, I have also asked myself, “Wouldn’t my family actually be better off if my career progressed?” I’d be better paid if it did and then we could go to Disneyworld every year. Activities like attending conferences are crucial for students and academics wanting to progress their careers like I do, so I’m tending towards saying “Yes, I must pay to do my job”.

And it’s not just me who seems to be frustrated by this catch-22 problem, as I found when I (@edd_hind) took to Twitter to gauge the feelings of other scientists:

Many in the research community have been making similar sacrifices:

And as the Twitter conservation continued and branched out on the hashtag #scispends, I started to realize I was actually a bit of a lightweight when it came to personal spends on academia. Many researchers had spent more and some were even supporting the careers of others(!):

What is more, personal spends no longer seem to be totally personal. Scientists are beginning to foot the bill for research and publishing, typically group activities that have been supported by institutions. Some of this spending was as a result of attempts to satisfy the increasing need to publish in an open access format:

 

If the experiences of those tweeting on #scispends are the tip of an iceberg, then my problem is not just my problem. The implications of thousands of scientists spending multiple thousands to do their job are wide-ranging and serious. I have withdrawn from one of the two conferences I planed to attend this year because I couldn’t afford the travel costs. I also won’t be able to publish my next paper in an open access format, because I don’t have access to the institutional funds that would support this. If other researchers face similar setbacks in doing their job, then there are many potential societal advances that are not being made, and many discoveries that are not being properly shared. Tweets on #scispends again suggest that my problem has been a wider one, with some even noting that the problem may be creating a total barrier to inclusion in science rather than just a few obstacles:

Has science become the new fashion industry, where you are much more likely to succeed if you are from a more economically advantaged background? Even that industry, infamous for bringing the world the morally dubious sweatshop, has acted to end unpaid internships while science has continued to add to the list of the number of ways you seem to have to pay to get ahead.

The #scispends Twitter conversation suggests that an issue that has previously been the subject of peripheral academic mumblings might be a bigger problem than previously thought. If personal spends on science are universally becoming an obstacle to happy family life, or are prohibiting diversity and inclusion in science, then there is indeed a problem that needs addressing.

The first step the scientific community need to undertake to address the problem is to assess how big it is. The #scispends conversation, though vibrant, has been pretty limited so far. The floor is now open. Please share your own experiences of personal spends on science, either by commenting on this blog or on Twitter using #scispends. Also, a colleague (Dr Brett Favaro of Memorial University – @LetsFishSmarter) and I have decided to take a more formal measure. Shortly, we are launching an online survey that will ask you to fully quantify your personal spends on science. If you are interested in taking the survey please message us at [email protected] and we will send you a form as soon as we have approval to do so from our research ethics committee.

We look forward to sharing the results of that survey with you at a later date, so that together we can find ways to stop conferences being ‘holiday’ and research ‘a luxury good’.