I don’t work for the people who pay me

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?

7 thoughts on “I don’t work for the people who pay me

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    I agree with you–and wonder if pointing out that New Brunswick taxpayers also benefit from research done elsewhere, by those supported by *other* taxpayers not from New Brunswick would be a useful argument. Something to be emphasized, I think. Researchers in Texas who are working on Texas problems (wasting disease in deer as one example) use data from other states and other countries on how these and similar diseases propagate in both wildlife and related livestock, and others use data generated here. Texas and Louisiana institutions both do research on Gulf coastal ecology, fisheries, etc. Effects cross borders; so must research.

    Your province, like my state, benefits from having a university (or more than one) in it, benefits in the same way that having the internet benefits…by connecting to a giant network of knowledge and skills shared by many, supported by many.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Artem Kaznatcheev

    I enjoy the positive tone and focus of your posts. It makes them a pleasure to read. In this case, you found this tone by focusing on geographic divisions and geopolitical boundaries. You suggested that science often transcends these. I think this is probably correct, but I don’t think it is the most relevant division. I think the division that science tends to reinforce is class division. We tend to work (directly or indirectly) for the rich, and much less so for the poor or even ‘average’ (whatever that means).

    I am not familiar with the broader impacts of research in ecology, so I’ll draw from my own experience for an example. I don’t think my experience is that atypical, especially if weighted by the amount of funding handed out by granting agencies (i.e. taxpayers).

    I work on mathematical oncology and the foundations of machine learning. Clearly, none of what I produce (if I produce anything at all) is geographically restricted. Anybody can get cancer, and computers are pretty widespread. Yet, much of the improvements to cancer treatment that are possible (way down the line) from my work, will be implemented in countries like the US; where access to treatment is clearly divided along class lines. The rich are usually able to receive these best treatments, while the poor cannot afford them. Or, more often than not, are killed by other diseases before cancer. So although my research might help cancer patients in Florida, Texas, Ohio, or Virginia… it will tend to help the rich more than the poor in all of those locations. And I don’t even have to mention the fact that this help usually ends up coming through the intermediaries of large pharmaceutical companies (although I try my best to avoid pharma-relevant work), that profit greatly from misery.

    And the case can be even worse in less rich countries than the US. Here, Canada and much of Europe might serve as counter-examples to inequality in healthcare access; but if we’re going global then why should we only focus on western countries? To what extend is my work on cancer research helpful to people in less wealthy nations? Compared to say much less funded work on malaria, infectious disease, and air quality.

    My contributions to foundations of ML are even more favoring to the rich. It is easy to convince ourselves that our ideas can be used to better humanity as a whole; that is what techbros advocate. But usually improvements in technology are first taken up and exploited by private companies for their interests. This way they can serve as a bottleneck through which funds are funneled to profit their shareholders. These companies tend to produce weapons of math destruction that often profit the rich and privileged at the expense of the poor and marginalized. We can pretend that indirectly the rising tide of knowledge lifts all boats; but that just seems to be an endorsement of trickle-down economics by other means.

    Things don’t seem to be that much better when I turn my attention to teaching. Currently, I teach at Oxford, which is dealing with a lot of inequality of access. If you’re rich and privileged, it is about ten times more likely for you to get into this school than if you aren’t. I imagine this might be even worse at top private schools in the US; but at least they can try to hide behind being private and not funded directly by taxpayers (although they often clearly are funded by taxpayers, just indirectly). But even outside of top-schools, it feels like we’re creating an education bubble where everybody has to have (and pay) for a higher degree; instead of reforming secondary education to better prepare citizens for the world.

    This isn’t made that much less depressing if I turn to indirect impacts of university education: the knowledge that my students bring to others in the community. I teach computer science, so many of my students will end up working for tech companies that make toys for rich people, or collect data on and find ways to exploit marginalized people; or they’ll work building code to help financial companies more ‘efficiently’ concentrate wealth. Of course, they’ll do this across the rich world; so we won’t see geographic boundaries, just class ones. And the few students that do achieve upwards mobility from the education that I help facilitate, will still deposit the indirect benefits of their mobility to the well-off, since those will be the people they are most in contact with once they’re at work.

    I apologize for this rambling and depressing comment. But I was hoping that you’d have a positive counter to help me come to terms with my position in this system. It feels to me like the benefits we produce might not be geographically restricted or biased; but they certainly seem to be class biased.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Artem – don’t apologize at all. Your comment is certainly not random (although I’ll grant you depressing).

      I do think there are fields in which the inequality of benefit is less steep, and I’d suggest climate change research might be a good example, as the poor are likely to be harmed as much or likely more than the rich. But at a more general level I wonder if the “correct” objection is to inequality in resources rather than inequality in current application of knowledge? If I remember the stats correctly, that inequality is declining slowly at a global scale but intensifying within many (not all) developed countries. This is, of course, very far out of my field!


    2. David Basanta

      Nice post Stephen and nice comment Artem. Stephen makes a nice comment after where he suggests working on public goods like climate change. Can we make cancer research a public good? in a sense it’s becoming one as cancer becomes increasingly more prevalent in less wealthy people (as only wealthy people used to grow old). Your job as a scientists is not only to add to your chose field but to shape it so go, shape it! make sure the tools you develop are a force for the good, for the public good.


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