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The Value of Science

By Email author - Sun, 13 Nov 2011 18:35:00 GMT
The Value of Science

Scientific research via Shutterstock

As I start this piece of musing, let me share with you a single day that justified my decision to become a scientist. At the time, I was working in a trace metal analysis group at Southampton on a project to identify sources of lead in children's blood in the UK. Part of my duties called on me to do routine copper and zinc analysis on clinical samples by AAS. We provided a support service to the NHS and one Friday, a blood sample came (by second post - this was a while ago) from a very sick, premature baby. I could have left the assay until Monday, but I had the training to understand that the information could be critical, so I set the assay up and performed the test with appropriate quality control measures. The child's copper and zinc levels were dangerously low; a third of what they should have been. I took the result to a medical colleague and he phoned the data through to the hospital with the suggestion that they augment copper and zinc levels in the fluids feeding the baby - she was too sick to take nourishment by mouth. The child may well have died, but she did not die because anybody was ignorant of her trace metal status. How much was my knowledge and skill worth that day?

Years later, I find myself looking with great sadness at the salaries being paid to scientists. Whilst there are some bright spots, even people with top level qualifications and years of experience can often only command modest salaries. People in the IT field, even people doing "e-mail marketing" can make more money than a science graduate. Of course, these sums aren't a patch on the money that top people make in finance; law; medicine; accountancy; business, or pretty much any other field of endeavour which requires a basic, higher education.

blood analyzes

Blood tests via Shutterstock

Yet, science is paramount to our future on this planet. It is critical to just about every aspect of modern life from feeding the people of the world, to water safety; environmental fate; energy production; health; medicine; monitoring climate change - the list goes on and on.

I had an MSc graduate in my lab one summer, covering for my technician whilst she was on maternity leave. The gaps in his basic knowledge were alarming, but he was certainly bright enough to pick up what he needed and I'm sure he'll make a decent career for himself (within the financial constraints imposed on him). He intended to go on and do a PhD in a niche area. At the time, his student debts were £12000 and he fully expected to be £25000 in the hole before he could get his first post doctoral position (and they pay little enough).

In academic research, you nearly have to sign a vow of poverty to get started. That wouldn't be too bad (really!) if you had access to good funds and state of the art equipment to do your research with, but this is far from being the case.

My fear is that talented people who should be drawn into science are going to look at the bottom line and chose something else. I can't say that were I starting out today, I wouldn't be making the same decision.

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