So I’m on the front page of the Austin paper today …
… and you’d think I’d be a little more excited. I wasn’t on the front page because of this blog, or as part of a feature about my YouTube channel, or to celebrate getting a AAAS Fellowship to work at Wired Magazine in San Francisco this summer, or to talk about my generally unquenchable thirst to share awesome science with people. This article was about the uncomfortable intersection of science and politics. Yuck!
I’m glad I got a chance to talk about this issue, but I think the (not totally accurate) story of “me” takes away from the message. (click through to read my full response)
I was approached to offer up the Graduate Student Perspective™ on how federal budget cuts could affect research at places like UT-Austin, where I just finished my PhD. I offered quite a bit of that in my interview, but to open the article it seems like I am cast into the role of a poor person (financially and job-prospectly) who regrets getting a PhD and who wants kids, a new car, and a vacation that are now even harder to get because of the sequester.
It’s not really accurate, and it’s not really useful. The sequester doesn’t hurt the personal financial security of graduate students as much as it does the intellectual security of American science research. Let me ‘splain:
First I’ll make this clear: I think the overall message of the article is correct, and the other folks interviewed are completely right. Cutting federal research dollars means fewer research projects get funded and that means labs will be able to hire fewer graduate students and post-docs. And fewer people doing the research means less research gets done. That’s economics that even a biologist can understand. Tom Levenson has written the Thing That You Should Read about this, so please do so.
But I, or other PhD students/post-docs, don’t need to become financial martyrs in order to get that message across. Especially when that’s not actually true. Yes, I am a graduate student (for another month). Yes, I am currently a teaching assistant (but that’s not an income supplement, it’s our actual income, and everyone does it at some point). Yes, I make $25,000 a year, give or take, but calling that meager doesn’t really do justice to all the people out there with Real Problems, and my wife works (plus, that doesn’t include the tuition and health insurance that I get). Yes, I own a 1999 Ford F-150 with manual windows, but that’s because I rarely drive, and my wife and I have another, newer car. We don’t have kids, but we aren’t postponing them because we are poor (because we aren’t). We just have a lot of other stuff to do. I was pretty open about all of this.
Even if we were living in poverty, creating victims out of current graduate students isn’t a useful strategy to bolster the case for science funding. For one thing, we aren’t victims. There’s no crying in baseball or PhD programs. Well, actually there’s a lot of crying in PhD programs, but the point is that we know what we are getting into, personally and financially. It’s not like we’re chained to the oars or something. Precisely zero people held a gun to my head and made me go to or stay in graduate school. Furthermore, we don’t get “into the game” to make money and buy cars and take vacations. We do it to become scientists. To do interesting and innovative work, to find something that no one else has found before, and most of all to prepare us to do this-or-something-like-it for a living.
That’s where the sequester hurts. It’s not driving graduate students to panhandling. It’s driving them to business school.
Who does take it on the chin? Young investigators, new scientists, up-and-coming researchers. More importantly, the knowledge and innovations they create. These sort of cuts will sacrifice our young, not the old and weak (and tenured), which evolution decided a long time ago was not a good system. We are right to be concerned about the next generation of scientists. If you want to be worried about someone, be worried for the new professor. Be worried for the talented undergrad or high school student who doesn’t see a place at the table and goes into accounting instead. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine … I’ve got a blog and a YouTube channel, what could go wrong?!
I don’t need to be (incorrectly) painted as someone who is poor in order to make a case for why science funding is important. If anything, creating Tiny Tims out of people who will graduate with PhDs cheapens that message. As if we have it that tough in life! Most of us won’t be unemployed, even if we aren’t professors. Rather, many of us will be under- or mis-employed. We aren’t starving for food. We are starving for opportunity and broader training. Doing two or three post-docs may cause some people to put off having children, but it also forces them to put off fully having a career. That part, at least, is not their choice. It’s simply what happens when you try to run the sand upwards through the hourglass: It takes a miracle to get there and there’s a bottleneck along the way.
I suppose if there’s a bright side to getting my picture on the front page, it’s that there’s no longer any doubt that I am a bona-fide “lab dude” who does “lab stuff”.
I should sell that as a stock photo! Then I could go on vacation!
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