Rhetoric is Nice, but Show 'em the Money

The UK government is currently espousing a passion for science. Prime Minister Tony Blair said recently: "The strength and creativity of our science base is a key national asset as we move into the 21st century." And the minister for science and technology, David Sainsbury, recently remarked: "It (science) can improve the quality of our lives by enabling us to live more healthily, and longer". Exactly so. Demonstrating this new attitude, Blair's government has significantly boosted the United

Sep 16, 2002
Richard Gallagher

The UK government is currently espousing a passion for science. Prime Minister Tony Blair said recently: "The strength and creativity of our science base is a key national asset as we move into the 21st century." And the minister for science and technology, David Sainsbury, recently remarked: "It (science) can improve the quality of our lives by enabling us to live more healthily, and longer".

Exactly so. Demonstrating this new attitude, Blair's government has significantly boosted the United Kingdom's science budget.1 However, as the salary survey in this issue reveals, not all in the British garden is rosy. One particularly sharp thorn: scientists' meager salaries.

A comparison with American counterparts' incomes makes for depressing reading. In some US cities, an assistant professor, roughly equivalent to a UK lecturer, earns more than a full professor makes in Britain. In Boston, the median entry-level assistant professor salary is $85,000. In London, where the cost of living index is almost 20% higher than in Boston, a full professor's median salary is $84,189 (at the exchange rate on the day of the survey, £1= US$1.477). A professor in the United Kingdom usually has responsibilities equivalent to a US academic department head; the median salary for this US position is $109,300.

Further down the ladder, things are even bleaker. The median British salary for lecturers in London is $44,310, which pales in comparison to the $83,500 on offer to assistant professors in San Francisco. The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that the average monthly rent for a moderate, unfurnished two-bedroom apartment in London is $1,300, while in San Francisco it is $1,800, but the overall cost of living index (COLI) for the two cities is comparable.

These findings can be added to a long list of wretchedness:

  • Earlier in the year, a National Association of Teachers in a Further and Higher Education study included the extraordinary factoid that UK academics would need a pay rise of 112% to get them to the average of academics in the other member countries of the G7.
  • According to a 2001 report from the UK treasury, "many universities and companies said that they had problems recruiting scientists and engineers in the R&D operations".
  • A report in Nature in 2000 suggested that many of the rising stars of British science during the period 1985-89 had emigrated to the United States.
  • 11 out of 12 top research universities "find it difficult to recruit good staff in particular subject areas" including biological science, according to a recent BBC questionnaire survey.

Such malaise likely has multiple causes, but an obvious one is compensation, or lack of it. Our survey shows that if Tony Blair is to realize his vision to "make sure the UK is one of the best places in the world to do science," competitive salaries for researchers must be part of the package.

Richard Gallagher (rgallagher@the-scientist.com) is editor of The Scientist.

1. H. Gavaghan, "Science and politics in the United Kingdom," The Scientist, 16[17]:29, Sept. 2, 2002.