Image: A bit of my salary. KMR Photography, CC BY 2.0.
I don’t work for the people who pay my salary. Or at least, not always. And this shouldn’t be a problem – but I worry that it’s becoming one.
Of course, in one sense I obviously work for the people who pay my salary: I’m a professor at the University of New Brunswick, and UNB pays my salary. Done and sorted, right? Well… maybe not so much.
Let’s back up one step. Because UNB is a publicly funded institution, my UNB salary means that I’m paid by the taxpayers of my home province*. Am I working for the taxpayers of New Brunswick? The answer (at least if we aren’t thinking in a purely HR sense) lies in who benefits from my work. And in that case, the answer must be “no”.
Who benefits from my work? The university? My province’s taxpayers? Someone else? Well, when I’m teaching, it’s most obviously my students, the bulk of whom are New Brunswickers. That’s tidy enough. I could make an argument that the benefits are actually far more diffuse than that – accruing to the people those students interact with in their careers, which may take them far afield – but that’s not the argument I’m going to make today. Instead, it’s my research and service that motivate this post. Who benefits from that?
I think relatively little of my day-to-day research and service effort directly benefits the citizens of my home province – at least, not more than it benefits anybody else in the world. Some of it does, to be sure, like my research on insect pests of trees that impact the local forest industry – although even in that, I’m really more interested in using the applied system to test general ecological hypotheses. But most of what I do doesn’t even have that tie to New Brunswick. My work on host-associated differentiation in plant-feeding insects, for example, has as much importance to citizens of Venezuela or Uganda or Thailand (I would argue) as it does to citizens of New Brunswick. I put five years into The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, which I hope will be of help to scientists worldwide. I review grants fairly often for agencies not just in Canada, but in the US, Poland, Austria, and other places; and I edit for two journals that are international in scope. None of this makes me unusual. Some university scientists will have a larger fraction of effort on local issues, and some smaller; but almost none of us work all the time to the direct benefit of the people who pay our salaries.
It wouldn’t be difficult to find a taxpayer or a politician who would think this is a big, big problem. But it isn’t. Instead, I think, it’s a fundamental feature of the way we, as a global society, do science, and the way we do universities**. There’s an implicit global contract, I think, that having science progress is good for us, and that having universities helps science progress. Also part of this implicit contract is the idea that this is best done by everyone funding universities and setting scientists loose – rather than by New Brunswick funding a university with scientists who work only on New Brunswick problems, and likewise for other jurisdictions. The phenomenal progress of modern science, and its international connectedness, suggest that this implicit contract has worked very, very well.
But increasingly, I see my university pushing the proposition that it returns value to the taxpayers who fund it. That might seem harmless, or even a good thing. It’s probably even true. But it’s not true the way it’s increasingly intended: as a proposition that work done here directly and preferentially targets value for taxpayers here. As one concrete manifestation: UNB’s Strategic Research Plan had in draft, and may still have, a sentence saying that “UNB’s research drives economic growth in New Brunswick and enhances the well-being of New Brunswickers” (or something like that). It’s pretty easy to read that as suggesting direct, focused, and intended local benefits – not simply the rising scientific tide that lifts all boats. I’m sure it was intended to be read that way. I don’t think UNB and New Brunswick are exceptional: I saw the same kinds of rhetoric, and funding, in my previous job at the University of Iowa, and I’m convinced the phenomenon is widespread.
It bothers me to see us provincialize the way we think about the benefits of science. I much prefer to think about my work benefitting people in Nevada, and China, and Croatia, and Namibia – while my colleagues there do work that benefits people in New Brunswick. I’ll admit that in part, I just find science more interesting that way; but I’m also convinced that science is more effective that way. I point this out often (and I’m sure some administrators at UNB are tired of me pointing it out), but I think it’s important. And if you’re going to tilt at a windmill, you might as well tilt at an important one. This is one of mine.
So no, I don’t work for the people who pay me, and I’m unapologetic, because I think we’re all better off that way.
© Stephen Heard December 11, 2017
*^This is a bit of an oversimplification. Because of a peculiarly Canadian wrinkle on federalism called “equalization payments”, even though higher education is a provincial responsibility, in effect all Canadian taxpayers contribute to my salary – especially, at the moment, those in Newfoundland, British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Let’s ignore this wrinkle, shall we?
**^Not all science is done through universities, of course. I’m writing here about university science because that’s what I know best – and because my title refers to who pays me. An interesting post could discuss how much all my same arguments hold for science done by government scientists, NGO scientists, and industrial scientists. Anyone want to write that?