More than Money

With a population of just 143,000, the city of Dundee may not seem the kind of glitzy destination that competes with knowledge centers such as San Francisco and Boston: Golf and mountain climbing qualify as top entertainments, and it takes less time to fly from New York to London than to drive there from Dundee. If fresh air fails to lure prospective lecturers to Dundee University's life science division, the median annual salary of researchers in the region--$37,757 (US)--probably won't start

By | September 16, 2002

With a population of just 143,000, the city of Dundee may not seem the kind of glitzy destination that competes with knowledge centers such as San Francisco and Boston: Golf and mountain climbing qualify as top entertainments, and it takes less time to fly from New York to London than to drive there from Dundee. If fresh air fails to lure prospective lecturers to Dundee University's life science division, the median annual salary of researchers in the region--$37,757 (US)--probably won't start a stampede either.

Yet, the Scottish university recruits top scientists from all over the world. "What attracted me to Dundee is a unique combination of people from different scientific backgrounds that work collaboratively," says Inke Nathke, a lecturer in the cell and evolutionary biology department who joined Dundee after postdoctoral stints at Stanford and Harvard Universities.

Despite her enthusiasm, Nathke admits that she and her husband, also a scientist at Dundee, would not have made the move to Scotland had they not received fellowships. "If both of us hadn't been raised substantially by what the university would have paid us, we would be very hard pressed," she says. "We wouldn't be that happy. It's just too hard."

Institutions built far from intellectual dazzle capitals such as London, Boston, and San Francisco shoulder an extra burden when trying to recruit top-ranking talent. High academic salaries in choice metropolitan areas heighten the stakes in the talent competition, according to a salary study done by Abbott, Langer & Associates, and sponsored by The Scientist and the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).1 The median salary for academic researchers in Boston is $72,000 compared with $43,592 in London; in Dundee the median income is less than half that in Boston (at the exchange rate on the day of the survey, £1 = US $1.477). The survey took place in June this year, and collected salary information from 11,492 researchers in the United States, 1,368 in the United Kingdom, and 775 in Canada. Over 100,000 scientists who responded to last year's survey, who are qualified life scientist readers of The Scientist and its web site, or are members of the AIBS constituent societies received invitations to participate.

The burgeoning biotechnology industry joins its pharmaceutical cousin in driving salaries even higher--even for academia--in cities with well-developed cutting-edge technology sectors. For junior researchers and postdocs, the US median income for Big Pharma is $51,150, for biotechnology $43,470, and for academia, $35,000. But salaries rise for both pharmaceutical and biotech companies in western New Jersey, a state where most of the world's pharmaceutical companies are nestled in verdant suburbs, resplendent with good schools. The median income in that region is $94,200, compared with the $60,700 median for all scientists.

San Francisco
$75,800 median income
COLI: 115

$72,000 median income
COLI: 100

$47,200 median income
COLI: 119

$39,650 median income
COLI: 83

$36,200 median income
COLI: 102

Note: All figures have been converted into US dollars; The Cost of Living Index (COLI) uses Boston as the base; an index figure above or below 100 indicates that the cost of living is percentage points higher or lower than the cost in Boston

Sources: "Compensation of Life Scientists," Compensation of Life Scientists in the United States of America 2002," Abbott, Langer & Associates.

The COLI figures were supplied by the Economist Intelligence Unit Worldwide Cost of Living (

BIG CITIES ALSO HAVE WOES Companies and institutions based in popular cosmopolitan cities also struggle with salary issues. The state of California sets the base pay for schools in the University of California system, for example. Yet, the cost of living differs dramatically between campuses in cities such as Humboldt in the state's cool northern climes and Los Angeles, nestled among some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States, including Beverly Hills and Bel Air.

San Francisco's higher cost of living pushes up salaries as well. The median salary for assistant professors in Los Angeles is $65,000; in San Francisco the comparable salary level is $70,000. Compare this with Boston, where assistant professors earn a median income of $85,000. UCLA also tries to lure scientists from the rest of the country. "It's extraordinarily difficult competitively to make a go of it in LA," says Frederick Eiserling, dean of the UCLA Division of Life Sciences. "Here, the major problems are housing ... and schooling. If you are going to live in an area where the housing is affordable, the schooling is usually substandard. Then you have to consider private schools, and those are expensive."

Universities aren't alone in competing hard for top talent. Biotechnology companies, many of them short on cash during a dry year for venture capital investment, struggle to choose the right kind of scientist, who not only leads the research field, but also has a knack for transforming research ideas into marketable products. The next challenge is to build a salary and benefits package that will not only persuade someone to move, but also put rival companies out of the running.

"If you assume that scientific interest and leadership is a given, the question is, what makes someone move?" asks Ira Isaacson, a director in the Atlanta office of the executive recruitment firm, Spencer Stuart. Isaacson works mainly with top executives. "Most individuals will not ... make a significant change unless their compensation bonus changes at least 20% to 25%."

It doesn't help that some of the world's most fertile biotechnology centers--the Boston area (including Cambridge), Cambridge, UK, Bethesda, Md., and San Francisco--also rank among the most desirable places to live, which drives labor costs even higher. Monthly rent for a moderate three-bedroom house in the San Francisco area can cost a king's ransom: $3,000 compared with $2,200 in Boston and $1,650 in London, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's Worldwide Cost of Living reports. "One of our biggest challenges here is the cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area," says Marc Katzel, vice president of human resources at Maxygen, based in Redwood City, Calif. "It has been in the past and it continues to be the challenge we have. ... It applies to any biotech area."

Even agricultural biotechnology companies, traditionally housed at a distance from the high-tech palaces of San Francisco and the two Cambridges, battle for talent. Companies in the rust-belt city of St. Louis compete with those in Research Triangle, NC, a scant three hours from either the beach or the forested North Carolina mountains. The salaries of the two regions are almost the same: The median income for St. Louis is $61,500 compared with $61,000 in Research Triangle. Yet, the natural environment and state incentives to biotechnology give North Carolina an edge. "Research Triangle Park is our primary competitor," says Robert J. Calcaterra, president and CEO of the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise in St. Louis.

INCENTIVES FOR CHANGE Still, for most biotechnology companies, Calcaterra explains, salary plays a less significant role in luring biotech scientists. More important are stock options. Some companies in the San Francisco Bay Area have learned to add housing programs--easy access to loans, and even cash advances to pay rental deposits--to their benefit packages.

Beyond glitzy pay and options packages, many scientists would rank the quality of the research environment first in their decisions to relocate or move from one company to another, recruiters and scientists say. The Basel, Switzerland-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis chose to open its new research center in Cambridge, Mass., in part, because of the rich research community. "The scientific environment, the access to technologies and to postdocs: All of these are for scientists extremely powerful," says Paul Herrling, head of research. "Are you a company that's rather liberal in terms of publishing and interacting in the scientific community? ...These are factors that are, I'd say, at least as important."

Among universities, Dundee is probably one of the more famous for creating a rich research environment in a climate of traditional British austerity. One of just eight UK universities that received the top five-star rating in biological sciences in the latest Research Assessment Exercises, Dundee also employs two of the three UK life scientists whose work was cited most often during the decade of the 1990s, according to Science Watch a publication of ISI.2 Not only does the university employ top talent, says Nathke, but it also encourages collaborations. "There are no prima donnas," Nathke adds. "It's not like, 'Oh I can't talk to so and so because he never talks to junior faculty.'"

In the United States, small schools such as Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., face challenges similar to those of Dundee--to attract people to what may be considered by many to be intellectual backwaters. For them, salary is only one factor. "The things that make it successful for us to recruit are twofold," says Jonathan Haines, director of Vanderbilt's human genetics center. "The cost of living is less, and the quality of living is something we can sell. It's more relaxed, a little more easy to get around."

Haines adds that knowledge centers such as Boston also have their drawbacks: Vanderbilt appeals to scientists tired of being at the center of the universe. "There's a tremendous intellectual energy in Boston ... you step off the plane, you can almost feel it," Haines says. "There's also a tremendous amount of competition, which works against the collaborative nature of science. ... There are lots of collaborations that go on, ... [but] there are lots of collaborations that should happen that don't."

The attractions of a major cultural center can also pale during the long commute many scientists must make from the outer suburbs, where mortgages are affordable. Academic scientists in greater London report a median income of $43,592, slightly above the $39,159 median for all UK researchers, according to the salary survey.1 The London salary reflects, in part, the added bonus of $3,156 to compensate for the higher cost of living; only San Francisco's cost of living is higher. Lecturers and other junior staff in London are hard-pressed to make ends meet. That means that traditionally top schools such as London's Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine now must redouble its recruitment efforts to compete with Dundee, as well as with US schools such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Many worry that these British institutions will lose the talent war. "What we have to do is start paying competitive salaries for these people," says Richard Sykes, Imperial College's rector. The low salaries "have serious implications; people are not going into academia."

Paula Park can be contacted at

1. "Compensation of Life Scientists in the United States of America 2002," Abbott, Langer & Associates.

2. "Citation Superstars of the UK, 1990-1999," Science Watch, 10[6], 1999; available online at

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