When jobs are only heaven sent

April 18, 1997

What does it take for a scientist to earn a decent living? It took the discovery of a comet to give Alan Hale financial security and the chance to champion the cause of the planet's jobless scientists. Lucy Hodges reports

Alan Hale, codiscoverer of Hale-Bopp, the comet of the century, is hoping to have an audience with Bill Clinton or Al Gore next week. He is planning a trip to Washington, armed with letters from all over the world about the parlous job situation facing scientists today.

Last month Hale, cashing in on his new-found celebrity as one of the two men who spotted the amazingly bright comet, zapped an open letter via the Internet "to the scientists of my generation''. It sought "horror stories" about their search for decent employment. Hale wanted to hear from people who were on their third or fourth postdoctoral positions. He wanted accounts from people who had experienced personal difficulties, divorce, for example. He wanted figures - how many applicants scientists were up against when they applied for jobs.

"I have had an overwhelming response to that letter, approaching 1,000 replies so far, with quite a few from Britain,'' he says, speaking from his home in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. "What I will say to President Clinton or Vice President Gore is: 'Can we admit there's a problem here that needs to be solved'?"

Hale reels off some of the emails he has received - each one a mini-tragedy. There is a British oceanographer, 39, like Hale himself, who is researching the dynamics of dissolved carbon dioxide in the ocean. He completed a part-time, self-funded PhD in 1992. His partner and daughter live in Britain but he is at a university in Vancouver, British Columbia, on his sixth postdoc - the second contract where he has had to live a long way from home. The fellowship, won in an open competition and highly prestigious, carries a salary of $20,000. He was told it would help to get him a permanent position. He is still waiting.

Or there is the world-renowned American astronomer whom Hale thought was a member of faculty. "By some miracle I have managed to survive on soft money for 20 years,'' he wrote. "I have no idea how I can possibly survive the next few years. Here I am at what should be the peak of my career ... Instead I had three proposals turned down by the National Science Foundation and from Nasa I have only enough money for nine months of salary. I have a director who ... feels no obligation to people on soft money. We are, after all, 'second-rate' astronomers compared to those in faculty positions. What am I to do? I love my work, I don't want to change careers ... I am too young to retire. I guess I have to decide what my threshold of pain is. Do I continue here at 75 per cent pay, at 50 per cent? When do I throw in the towel?'' Someone wrote to say his brother was on the staff at a University of California campus where an opening tenure track job was advertised. It attracted 350 applicants. They decided to whittle down the list by concentrating on those with 50 or more published papers, which would take ten years to achieve. They still got 50 applications.

Since gaining a PhD in astronomy from New Mexico State University in 1992 Hale himself has had an almost non-existent employment record. Although he got a job on contract, working in a science museum, he quit after eight months. He was paid $23,000 a year with no benefits, no health insurance and a mandatory unpaid two weeks' annual holiday. He was promised research work but none materialised. The pay scientists receive is not enough to support a family, says Hale, who has a wife and two sons. In his case, his wife went back to work as a nurse. She was working part time but made what her husband earned full time and got benefits.

Hale spent about a year looking for work. Applying for jobs was a palaver, requiring the submission of three letters of recommendations plus university transcripts. If you received anything at all, it would be a two-paragraph formula letter turning you down. "There were hundreds of applicants for every job.'' He stopped trying. "I saw the writing on the wall. I saw I could just keep this up indefinitely and the best I could ever get was some postdoc that would barely be enough to support the family. We would have to relocate somewhere and two years later I would be right back where I started."

Since 1992 he has taught part time at university branch campuses but the pay scale for part-timers is very low. When you add in preparation time it barely amounts to the minimum wage. So he set up his own one-man institute for space research.

The discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp has not only conferred immortality on Hale, it has also probably secured his financial future. He has written a book, Everybody's Comet, and he undertakes speaking engagements all over the US at $500 a throw. With Hale-Bopp he believes his South West Institute has a decent chance of success. Contributions have come from foundations, businesses and local individuals. It is a start, he says.

What are the reasons for the calamitous job scene for scientists? Hale attributes it to money. He grew up in the Apollo era. He was 11 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon, he explains. But a good deal of that science push was political. Things changed. The jobs dried up. "There's also a tremendous lack of science literacy in our society,'' says Hale. "You see it everywhere - the number of people who check their horoscopes." In New Mexico religious fundamentalists have taken over the state board of education. Science education standards, which strike out all reference to evolution, have been introduced to the curriculum. Similar developments have happened elsewhere in the United States.

Another spectacular sign of the state of science in America was the recent mass suicide by Heaven's Gate cult members in California who interpreted the arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp as the signal to prepare for the life hereafter. People also went dotty about the idea of a UFO companion to Hale-Bopp, according to Hale, when what they were seeing was a bright background star. As a result he received vicious hate mail.

Hale's disillusion struck a chord last week with scientists in the United Kingdom, where the combination of a collapse in the dual support system and so-called efficiency savings has led to the casualisation of research workers and a shortage of up-to-date equipment. "It's a very depressing problem which has grown much worse in the last decade,'' says John Mulvey, executive secretary of the Save British Science Society.

Mulvey believes that funding lies at the heart of the problem. British science research receives around Pounds 2.2 billion a year in government support. Funding has risen over the past decade by around 10 per cent in real terms. But during that time big changes have taken place in technology. Nowadays no chemistry department can be at the cutting edge unless it has nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy equipment. Such equipment is expensive, costing up to Pounds 750,000.

But the money has not been there to buy equipment or to hire new staff. And, because money for research has come from the research councils, which typically give grants for projects lasting 18 months to two years, staff have come in on short-term contracts. Someone with a science PhD will start at around Pounds 16,000 on a contract, moving up to the low Pounds 20,000s after a few years, at which threshold most contract salaries level off. Sir Denis Noble, professor of cardiovascular physiology at Oxford, says there is not a single person on his team who has not trailed from one contract to another. In two cases staff have spent their entire active research careers on soft money, he explains. One, a man aged 60, has just taken early retirement and the other, in his fifties, has decided to leave science. Colin Blakemore's Oxford physiology department has 100 postdocs on short-term contracts.

But not all experts lay everything at the door of funding. Matthew Freeman, a molecular biologist at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, says some people who hang on to careers in science through fellowships and contracts are not up to making it as independent researchers, and should be told so. At the same time, however, Freeman believes there is a shortage of funds and too few jobs. It pains him that universities have become places for the brightest scientists to avoid in favour of independent outfits like the Wellcome Foundation and the MRC. That is because academics have to cope with inferior facilities in the universities and undertake too much teaching to leave time for research. Freeman himself was offered a university post and an MRC position on his return from America. "Nothing in the world would have tempted me to take the university position," he said.

Geoffrey Miller, 31, an evolutionary psychologist at University College London, thinks young researchers are not given the right kind of "cost-benefit signals''. Their superiors do not explain that the job market is hostile because they do not know the problems their researchers face today. Like Hale these young scientists are passionate about what they do. Unlike Hale they will never have the platform thrown up by discovering a bright comet in the sky.

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