The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Crowdfunding Science into the Ground

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Update

After an exchange with Dr. Mel Thompson, I realised that I'd completely misinterpreted the quote about return on investment being less minimum wage. I had thought that money raised from from crowdfunding was forming people's actual salary, and that this salary was less than minimum wage. What was actually meant was that the ratio of money raised through crowdfunding/time spent crowdfunding was less than minimum wage.

I think it is still the case that there are times when crowdfunding will exclude potential scientists, because it is paradoxically (a) considered to be "above and beyond" work (b) necessary to do to have job security. It is also the case that there are still people in research who work for less than minimum wage (including for nothing), and this is harmful. But that doesn't really have anything to do with crowdfunding.

There was a time when I felt sorry for Australian scientists.

Caught between uncaring citizens, hostile politicians, and the grateful beneficiaries of their research… the lot of a researcher is not one to envy.

There was a time when I sympathised, and that time ended as soon as I read this: Young scientists use crowd sourcing to fund their research.

Now I just feel angry, and embarrassed for everyone involved.

I want you to imagine a different headline:

Labourers turn to crowdfunding to keep car factory open.

Now imagine that it’s not their factory, they get no share of the profits, and as a result of their efforts they’re on less than minimum wage. Could anyone possibly harbour the delusion that this would ever improve matters?

Oh sure, scientific researchers aren’t expected to be experts on the intricate details of industrial relations. Unlike, say, manual labour, science has slowly “descended” over the centuries from an indulgence of the upper classes. We don’t have the kind of lore that other vocations do about being wary of exploitation and piss-poor safety procedures.

But every scientist, at some point during an argument with someone who doesn’t know science, has had to draw the line. You know, that line, where you say, “your refusal to accept widely established facts does not deserve concession,” or maybe, “go to a goddamned library.”

This applies to industrial relations too. Working for less than minimum wage to buy essential supplies for a field that produces life-or-death-level drugs and devices is so far over that line you should be doing astronomy instead of medical research.

You can’t deride those who deliberately reject centuries of science, but then reject centuries of industrial relations wisdom yourself. That’s just absurd.

Keeping it warm

I realise that there are many complications to this. The politicians who have gutted Australian science over the last decade or so (and many of those who elected them) are not in the demographic that will suffer the most from its1 collapse. Most researchers can’t not think of the people who will benefit from their work, which means that it’s heartbreaking to contemplate thowing it all away.

So… why not turn to the public directly so that you can keep things ticking over? Just until one of those science-supporting governments gets elected! We’re due for one, right?

But if this is the future of research, collapse is inevitable. The Double Helix Science Club and children’s holiday programs have been axed. We looked at the problem of there being more scientists than science, and we just turned the tap off. And now we’re at the point where we can’t convince our own government to fund even the science that is here, now, already?

I mean, that’s the cheapest kind of science! The science we’re already set up to do!

Crowdfunding at this level is not going to save science at all. It is incredibly volatile — even more so than government funding — it is fickle, and it has no room to grow. Recipients have probably already found most of those who would be willing to donate. The “boring” background research, the science that supports and enables the projects that really appeal to donors, doesn’t have a chance.

If, IF the implosion of research in Australia is inevitable, it would be better for it to happen during the reign of the politicians who have destroyed it. Papering over the cracks like this will only defer, and therefore dilute, any kind of accountability. It will also permanently push out anyone who is not fortunate enough to indulge in this.

You have to want it

Let’s come back to the Age’s article now, because it touches on the thing that has angered me the most about academic science over the years. It’s the “you have to want it” attitude. It is gaslighting bullshit of the highest order, and it has to stop.

Dr Rees, whose contract at UNSW ended in July, says people who stay in science are passionate because “there are so many slings and arrows that no one stays in research for long if they’re not totally invested in it”.

No.

The word you are looking for is not “passionate.” No. The word you want is “privileged.”

If you look at the time [spent on the campaigns] versus return it is less than the minimum wage

You know what this actually means? It means “no one poorer than us could ever do this.” It means, “anyone who has more crap than us to juggle is locked out of science.”

This does not filter people out on the basis of “passion” or “merit.” It filters people out based on things they can’t control. It destroys people’s mental health and home life. It throws one more stumbling block in the path of someone who might already be close to giving up no matter how good they are at the actual science.

Scientists in Australia need to reflect on whether this is the fate they want for Australian research. Because working for free, crowdfunding for essential supplies, equating self-sacrifice with commitment — these are the ways we entrench privilege. This will kill science as much as lack of funding.

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