It happened again: A neighbor just me asked what I do, I told them I run an environmental news site, and they responded with a sneer: “Oh, that climate change crap. Those scientists only say that stuff because they’re getting paid.”
Hearing this much-echoed right-wing talking point — which has been repeated so many times many people often believe it’s true — just saddens me, because I’m in a rare position to understand the reality. I’ve been working with scientists for the majority of my life. Over the past few decades I have spoken with, and interviewed, thousands of scientists over the phone and in person, sometimes over meals and drinks. Never once has anyone bragged about the money they’re making. Instead I usually hear the opposite: how hard it is to fund their research or even their own salaries.
Maybe they’re out there — these Ferrari-driving, money-grubbing researchers fleecing us all —but in all my years of environmental reporting I’ve never encountered them. The scientists I’ve met are doing their work because they’re dedicated to the pursuit of scientific truth and making the world a more intelligent, thoughtful place. It can be a difficult, tedious and lonely task, with long hours and stubbornly elusive fame and fortune. But they do it anyway, because they believe it’s important. And it is.
But it doesn’t really pay. Take environmental scientists, for example. According to the job site Indeed, the environmental scientist jobs posted over the past two years had an average salary of $58,885. Postdoctoral positions — the most common jobs for early-career scientists — pay a little less, about $53,000, according to the job site Glassdoor. Climbing up the job ladder helps, although there are much fewer jobs at higher levels. Research scientist jobs are paid $76,154 on average, and if you’ve got years of professional experience you can made an average of $90,619 as a senior scientist.
That sounds like a lot — heck, it’s more than most of the people in my neighborhood make — but keep in mind that these jobs all require doctorate degrees and many years of education, meaning any budding scientist likely leaves school heavily in student debt. That financial obligation doesn’t go away quickly, if ever. According to a recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, about 2.8 million Americans over the age of 60 are still struggling to pay off their student debts.
But what’s that, you say? It’s not the salaries that draw people into this field, it’s the lucrative grant money? Millions and millions of dollars, right? Well, to let the air out of that conspiracy theory, check out this “Global Weirding” video from climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who illustrates quite clearly just how much money from a recent $1.1 million grant went into her pockets:
(If you skipped the video, here’s the answer: $0.00.)
All of this brings to mind a troubling story. A few years ago I traveled to a scientific conference for which I’d been lucky enough to receive a fellowship. I wasn’t being paid to attend, but the organization sponsoring me did cover my airfare and hotel room, which I shared with another journalist from the fellowship. It was a fairly nice room, right at the same building where the conference took place, meaning we didn’t need to find transportation between buildings at night. I thought that was a good deal, because the surrounding neighborhood was what I could categorize as one step above seedy.
I figured most of the scientists speaking at the convention would also be staying at the same hotel and therefore easy to interview. Nope. It turned out many of them were staying at hotels a few blocks or a few miles away, in much less desirable parts of town. They didn’t have anyone paying their way, nor did they have expense accounts. Their travel costs, hotel fees and meals were all coming out of their own pockets. As a result they needed to do everything they could to cut their expenses.
For one group of researchers I spoke with, that penny-pinching actually put them in a decent amount of danger. There were several of them, all early-career women, splitting a room in a run-down motel about a mile from the conference. One morning they woke up to find their door ajar. It turned out the frame was bent and the door just didn’t latch correctly, allowing someone else to silently sneak into their room.
They were very lucky. None of them was hurt and they had slept through the intrusion — but in the early morning light they realized that some of their laptops were gone.
I guess this is what irritates me the most about the conspiracy theories that claim scientists say the world is warming just to enrich their own wallets. In reality these are highly educated, highly devoted individuals. They’re doing work they know is critically important, and they’re sometimes living well below the mean for their trouble. They’re not enriching themselves, but they are enriching our understanding of the planet. That’s something we should all be commending, not attacking.