Will Do Physics For A Meal
    By Tommaso Dorigo | June 13th 2010 04:16 AM | 21 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    Today, for the first time in 18 years of association to the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), I leave for a trip abroad, to the CERN laboratories, on my own wallet.

    The situation into which basic research has been thrown by our crazy government borders the ridiculous, but is pretty darn serious. Italian physicists often travel to foreign laboratories to attend their apparata, collect data, perform their research, discuss with colleagues. If they lose money to do this, they will stop their foreign activities. I think in particular at graduate students and young post-docs, who earn salaries insufficient for a living, and whose per-diem compensation when abroad used to allow them to cover their expenses.

    Post-docs in Italy earn about 1200 euros a month, a salary which is half or a third of that of colleagues from other countries. Until May 31st, when they traveled abroad they would also get about 100-130 euros per diem to cover lodging and meals. This allowed them to save a little. From now on, they will be reimbursed of the hotel expenses (making the choice of a cheap lodging not attractive any more), while the refund of meals is still uncertain. For sure, lunches and dinners within the lab (at CERN there is an excellent canteen) will not be refunded, because there will be no proof of the expenses.

    In a time of economical crisis, other countries are reducing expenses across the board, but one sector immune of cuts is research and instruction: obviously, since it is a quite foolish idea to reduce the quality of our investment in the future. In Italy, basic instruction has been hit hard by the cuts, and expenses for universities and research are also being cut recklessly. The emergency, for our prime minister, is to pass laws that prevent judges from investigating on his misdemeanour, while the economical crisis, the future of Italy, and the situation of our younger generations do not appear a concern.

    As I leave for CERN, I think that I will spend more money than I will get back, but I bring with me one conforting thought: I do not need to be ashamed of my job when I am abroad. In Italy, that is the feeling.


    Post-docs in Italy earn about 1200 euros a month, a salary which is half or a third of that of colleagues from other countries. 
    In the US there seems to be an odd problem no one wants to address; there are a lot more PhDs than there are jobs, which will drive (wages) down.

    I wish that in the private sector something like post-docs had existed because I would never have hired anyone.   We could do internships but they were fairly short duration.

    My younger brother had a similar issue becoming an electrician, though that was more due to unions.   When he became a 'master' electrician his income rate went way up but he couldn't get a job because companies were going to pay what they were going to pay so he was replaced with another 'apprentice' on payrolls.    His solution was to leave the union - so it may go with academic research.  The private sector businesses have far more restrictions on employee compensation, they can only pay a narrow delta of what they would pay anyone else.    There is X amount of money the government is going to pay, good economy or bad, so more people competing for finite jobs will get cheaper.
    I think the per diem change is a shame, since everyone has it built into the system that a post-doc can be frugal and put some money in their pocket to offset the ordinary losses from wages.    But since it is a known issue, that is now identified as waste.     It certainly makes science research only for the passionate - or the wealthy.

    But at least in the US, I have argued that government-funded research is overrated and claims that academic research will be more pure are not evident.
    In the US there seems to be an odd problem no one wants to address; there are a lot more PhDs than there are jobs, which will drive (wages) down.
    I would correct this slightly: there are a lot more PhDs than there are academic jobs. It's possible to get an excellent, well-paying industry job right out of grad school without a postdoc in biology. You can get an even better one after a very short post-doc. But the vast majority of postdocs seem to stick with the low-wage, lengthy postdoc in hopes of getting an academic job, and there are few academic jobs. People are willing to stick it out, because a faculty position as a biomedical scientist at a medical school can be extremely appealing. You have a tremendous amount of autonomy to define your research interests, the pay is very competitive, and the environment is intellectually stimulating. In the scientific community, it's a prestigious job. There are obviously also corporate jobs that are intellectually stimulating for biologists, but for a long time the culture in grad school has been that an academic job should be your first priority. That culture is changing, painfully at times, but it is changing. More and more graduate students are coming in without expectations of an academic job.
    I would correct this slightly: there are a lot more PhDs than there are academic jobs.
    Yep, we were discussing academia so I sort of assumed that (and I clarified it in a later comment) ... those who stay in academia have different motivations and we need them, just like we need every other type of person.   But too many people thinking they will run labs or be professors is unrealistic so it's good that corporate science is no longer stigmatized as automatic selling out of ethics.
    Gerhard Adam
    ...there are a lot more PhDs than there are jobs, which will drive (wages) down.

    Which is precisely why I'm puzzled everytime I hear people expressing concern regarding our future competitiveness in science and mathematics.  We cannot encourage people to go into science if our economic position is such that it has no value.

    In fact, between our educational system and the job market, it is set almost explicitly to discourage anyone from pursuing a career in the sciences.  As has been discussed before, when it comes to encouraging people to learn science and to participate, the solution doesn't involve new educational programs or teachers.  Pay them ... you'll get plenty of takers.
    Mundus vult decipi
    We need to make a distinction between the sciences and the academia section which is financed by taxpayers.  Who wouldn't want to work in academia if you could make as much as in the private sector?

    The idea of government-funded science has become so ingrained that in the last 50 years that people basically ignore the data about how much corporate science is skewed against propositional knowledge as opposed to prescriptive.

    When America was revolutionizing science, government funding was negligible.   

    I have argued that perhaps we should regard science as a strategic resource - but scientists in academia may not like that because it would mean more of a balance between applied and basic research with taxpayer money.
    All I can say is that I'm sorry to hear about this situation in Italy, Tomasso.

    Although, it sounds only too familiar to me.
    This is ridiculous. I hope the situation will improve and Berlusconi will end up in jail.

    When was the last scientist or member of the academia elected president in Italy?

    In France I believe this just plain never happened. Sometimes I find myself dreaming of someone like A. Merkel as head of state -she has a PhD in quantum chemistry ( and this has been an asset for German science ( Not that it needed it apparently (

    I might be off topic, but is Italy a commuist country, or how can one man, Berlusconi, do such a big damage? I bet no... One can not always blame one man of everything?

    He's a polarizing figure.   The US government is scrambling to blame everyone else for their nonexistent response to the oil spill.  During Hurricane Katrina and that nonexistent response, detractors could blame Bush.  For this oil spill, they blame ... Bush.

    The more culturally rabid science bloggers really miss Bush.  I expect Berlusconi will be missed one day also?
    And does one really want scientist as head of state? First of all, one cant expect one person to lead everyone. Second, I would rather, as leaders (if people in democratic country really need strong leaders), see people who have created jobs, tax-flows, and healthy for others. And in their positions they can direct necessary tax-flows into science.

    In the US most politicians are lawyers so they certainly have never added anything to the workforce.  Barack Obama never had a real job.   We have a number of science-degreed politicians and they are unlikely to put their education ahead of their constituents any more than anyone else.
    please correct: "hope the situation improves and Berlusconi ends up in jail"

    Physicists working on projects that are just starting up (i.e. doing preliminary studies needed to secure funding) often travel on their own wallet. It's not shocking, and Italy is not alone. However, of course I do think the INFN situation is ridiculous (although ridiculous is not all that far off the normal state of affairs for INFN ;)

    Tommaso: "Post-docs in Italy earn about 1200 euros a month, a salary which is half or a third of that of colleagues from other countries."

    That depends on what countries you pick, yes there are some which pay more but there is also an awful lot of those which pay less sometimes much less.

    Presci, what countries do you have in mind ? Italy is among the most industrialized, "big" countries, G8 etcetera. Let's take the average Postdoc salary of the G8 and let's compare that.

    Pretty much all the rest? Here in eastern Europe the salary is a half to a third of what you get in Italy.

    It's simply a matter of proper perspective, if you mean that Italy compares unfavorably to the G8 or the richest countries among the 200 or so on our planet you should say so as the generic term "country" simply makes your comparison invalid.

    Also it is quite understandable that as Italy finances deteriorate (PIIGS and all that) it has less money to spend on science. And frankly particle physics in it's current state offers little benefit to the society besides prestige. What is to be discovered will be discovered anyway, even if Italy pulls out, the difference is who's name will be on the paper.

    The money are likely better spent on things like molecular biology where the progress is easy and fast and there is a vast amount of discoveries still to be made, discoveries which directly impact medicine and therefore living conditions of many people.

    Italians are crazy....

    Some Czechs recently became Italian by eating pasta, especially pasta Adriana. They want the town of Litovel to be merged to Italy because they now feel more Italiano than Checo.

    Their plan is that a region around Bibione would be given to the Czech Republic as a compensation. ;-)
    Oh, I know many czecs like Bibione... I spent my childhood vacations there. No way we are going to give it away... But take Milano if you want, I'd be happy to do without it.

    We will consider the offer. But when I saw the famous La Scala, it looked less impressive than our theater in Pilsen. However, there were lots of pigeons in front of the church and one of them managed to shit into the pocket of my shirts from an impossible angle. So there may be skillful labor in the town... ;-)
    It was not a true pigeon, but a robotic one radio-controlled by the climate warming mafia.... 
    Dear Tommaso, Italy is not controlled by the global warming mafia but rather the mafia without adjectives. ;-) Even during communism, we could watch the Octopus stories of Corrado Cattani.
    The best mafia to join on August 24th, 2010 is Mafia II featuring Vito Scaletta and friends.

    It could be the best game ever. Mafia 1 was excellent but this is a new generation, with PhysX, possible 3D image, and an amazing story and authentic cars, weapons, and playboy magazines.