"Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia!" -Winston Smith
BikeMonkey Guest PostI have been reading over the minor tempest that the DM has been trying to stir up with respect to the NIH grant as a "gift" to the PI. It strikes at deeper chords of tension that we have in NIH-funded science, chords that emerge most strongly every time there is a budget crisis. Or the appearance of a budget crisis in the NIH, anyway. It amuses me to match the identification of "the real problem", the prescription offered as a solution and the career status of the person making the comment.
Older PIs complain about all the junior reviewers on study section and want to replace them with people more established, just like themselves.
Junior PIs complain about the rich-getting-richer and the OldBoys/Girls club and want caps on the total amount of funding a PI can hold.
Middle career PIs complain about OldBoys/Girls and Early Stage Investigator affirmative action...and propose a variety of creative cures that seem custom fit to benefit their own exact situation.
But the selfishness hardly begins and ends with NIH funded scientists. Not by half.
We hardly need to overview tax policy. It is almost axiomatic that if someone wants to make a stink about taxes they are bringing up ideas that soak someone else more than their own family.
I happen to have children in the public school system in my state. School funding is a chronic problem, of course. Education is a huge wedge in the pie of state funding in most places and only a minority of voters typically have children in the public schools at a given time. Tie that to an erroneous perception that being a public school teacher is an outrageous sinecure and you have voters refusing to fund the schools. The interesting thing is that when you have a crisis, everyone wants to take it out of the hide of someone else. The teachers revolt at any hint of furlough or pay cut. Parents revolt at class size increases. Parents pick and choose what "special program" is absolutely essential and which one needs to be cut (Gifted and Talented? Special Needs? Athletics? Arts? Music? ..). The average response amounts to: "Do it to Julia".
Eminent professor-bloggers Janet Stemwedel and Chad Orzel have been discussing a rather obscure area of professorial compensation. Professor Stemwedel framed the issue as follows:
Some universities (public ones and private ones) offer tuition waivers to family members of their employees. Where they are offered, tuition waivers are a part of the compensation package that is usually meant to be a counterweight to a salary that is lower than one might have liked. Health insurance and pensions (where they exist) work this way, too. If the benefit is not offered as part of the compensation package, the potential hire might (or should) sit down and calculate what those additional costs (to buy insurance, save for retirement, pay for a child's college education) will be, and whether it is plausible to cover them on the salary being offered.
The bulk of her remarks were based on the motivating article (h/t: @KateClancy) in which a state legislator proposed closing a budget gap by reneging on faculty-offspring tuition waivers. Professor Stemwedel remarked on the unfairness and inadvisability (for future faculty recruiting) of taking away a promised compensation that was in place at the time of faculty hire.
Professor Orzel struck a similar tone:
For the current employees, eliminating the benefit is, in the insurance analogy, roughly equivalent to your health insurance canceling your coverage right before you get sick. Or, to change analogies a bit, it's like the university not only stopping new contributions to an employee's retirement fund, but retroactively taking back all of the employer's contributions, going back to their first day on the job. It's the breaking of a contract between the employer and employee, in every sense but the narrowest legal one.
The solutions offered by each blogger has a whiff of "Do it to Julia". Professor Orzel offers up the possibility of phasing out the tuition waivers for all future hires. Professor Stemwedel suggests that in the state in question, the legislator might look first to the full-ride tuition remissions available for legislators to award and only second to the half-ride wiavers made available to University employees. If we left it here, these two would be as craven as Winston Smith who, under extreme duress finally cracked and abandoned his loyalties to his beloved Julia. Except, without the physical and psychological torture, of course.
What it is important to recognize is that Professor Stemwedel was recommending shared pain. Do it to their legislative tuition waivers also. Professor Orzel did her one better:
They should also investigate the possibility of means-testing the program (there may be tax law problems with this, though)-- while these things are usually discussed on-line in terms of their effect on faculty, the effect of the benefit is much larger for the staff, who make considerably less than the faculty do. (Again, money and power.) I would be less offended by the proposals discussed in that article if they affected only faculty, and left the benefit intact for staff.
We need more of this. Especially from those who are in power because they have a tendency to actually get their way (promoting regressive taxation schemes, for example) but also from all of the rest of us peasants. We can end up with more equity and a better social compact if we commit ourselves to taking one for the team now and again. School teachers, sorry but you are going to have to take a paycut. Parents of Gifted and Talented or football or glee club kids...sorry. Voters...why don't you vote for a pro-tax legislator just once? Tell your CongressCritter or State Rep that you really wouldn't mind a tax increase. Professors? I know it was a condition of employment but you need to get this "we're undercompensated for our awesome big brains and lengthy training at low wages" chip off your shoulder- other workers get promises pulled back too.
And NIH-funded Principal Investigators...you too. What policies are you promoting or enacting as a study section member that have a chance of hurting you too...instead of only doing it to Julia?