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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Why Aren’t There More Scientists? A One-Word Explanation

“The type of science that I do is sometimes known as ‘curiosity-driven research,’” writes Hope Jahren, who teaches paleobiology at the University of Hawai‘i. “This means that my work will never result in a marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct gain.” If by some crazy chance she discovers something useful, that will be “figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me,” she writes.

So she’s the real deal—a scientist chasing questions, designing experiments, and showing 19, 20, and 21 year olds how to do it. Her lab has produced important papers, mostly about why plants have been so successful on our planet. Giant corporations don’t throw money at her. Venture capitalists don’t take her to lunches, but she is rewarded. The National Science Foundation, a government agency, gives her three-year grants. They are hard to get.

Yet once she has the cash—you scientists reading this will yawn, but I was a bit startled—it turns out that taxpayer money has an odd habit of vanishing, even when it’s right there in your hands.

Every year Congress gives the National Science Foundation roughly 7.3 billion dollars. That sum hasn’t changed much (in real terms) for decades. The Defense Department gets $573 billion. But $7.3 billion isn’t bad. “It sounds like a lot of money,” says Jahren, even if it’s spread across biology, geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and some computer science.

In her own little corner of things, paleobiology (dinosaurs! woolly mammoths! evolution! fossils! history of life! history of global warming!), the government funds six million dollars of research.

Divided 50 times—assuming one paleobiologist in every state—that works out to $120,000 per grant. In fact, Jahren counted between 30 and 40 grants per year, for an average of $165,000. Assuming some of those scientists hire assistants, she figures there are “about 100 [government] funded paleobiologists in America.”

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Photograph Courtesy of Jörg Schneider, Photo Archive, Czech Geological Survey

Yet “we keep graduating more [students] each year,” she writes.“Researchers love what [we] do … So as with all creatures driven by love, we can’t help but breed.” But graduates have a hard time finding work. Some go to oil companies (or used to), some to museums, some work on dinosaur movies—but it isn’t a booming profession. Paleobiology professors on campus, says a study by Roy Plotnick of the University of Illinois, are lopsidedly oldish …

“[T]here are about 4.5 times as many full professors than assistant professors and more than twice as many emeritus professors.”

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But jobs aren’t our subject. Let’s go back to money: Hope Jahren gets $165,000 to pay for a typical three-year project. The University of Hawai‘i pays her salary except for summers. (“[I]t is very uncommon for a professor to be paid when classes are not in session …”) For help, she needs a teammate. She can’t do what she does alone.

So she budgets for one suitable helper. These days, she might ask for a $25,000 base salary plus $10,000 to cover benefits, which seems ridiculously low. But when she makes her hire, she has to pay a “tax” (called overhead or indirect cost) of another $15,000 to the university. “I never see a dime of it … This tax is ostensibly used to pay the university’s air-conditioning bill, fix the drinking fountains, and keep the toilets flushing, though I feel moved to mention that each of these things works only intermittently within the building that houses my laboratory.”

So that’s $50,000 to support the employee—over three years, $150,000.

Which leaves how much for equipment? Supplies? Travel to science meetings? Christmas parties? Chemicals? She’s got $15,000 left—that’s $5,000 a year. But she gets taxed by the university here too, leaving her with, maybe, $3,500 a year. That’s it.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Jeesh. And when the three years is up, she needs another round to keep going, which means she’s got to come up with results that justify the grant she got to get the grant she needs next. It helps to get multiple grants so you can double up to stay afloat.

When we talk in this presidential campaign about “falling behind” in the race to produce scientists, all Jahrens can do is laugh. “America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Science has never been a flush business, but it’s getting parched. The next time you meet a science professor, she says, ask her if she ever worries about her lab data, worries about making a deadline, worries about an experiment that won’t work, worries that she’s trying to crack an uncrackable question. “Ask a science professor what she worries about,” Hope Jahren says, “It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: ‘Money.’”

Hope Jahren’s new book is Lab Girl. It’s the story of her life in the lab and the field studying soil, fossils, friends, and worrying, worrying, worrying about … you know what.