02 December 2010

Indie spirit

A lot has been written about the second Rock Stars of Science campaign. Chris Mooney is keeping tabs: One, two, three, three and a half, four.

In a way, the pairing of these particular scientists and these particular musicians is apt. In both fields, these are Famous People. They who run big operations with big money.

In short, these are people who have Made It.

But for every headliner, there’s a brilliant session musician who only people in the industry know. There are the friends in their garages practicing and bands crisscrossing the country in second hand vans. Singers who hold down day jobs to hold themselves over between gigs. These can be musicians of high caliber, have a thousand true fans, but will never hear their song on the radio.

I want an Indie Bands of Science campaign.

I want something to celebrate the grad students who are still trying to break into a science career, the overworked post docs, and the profs who run labs on shoestrings.

In many places, the value of faculty members is being judged by their monetary value alone. How much grant money can you bring in?

This is a like judging the quality of music by the number of iTunes downloads. By that measure, one of your favourite musicians is “objectively” not as good as the Glee Cast, Ke$ha, or Justin Beiber.

For faculty members, it’s an embarrassment not to have funding. Nobody exactly brags about it. But maybe it’s time for people to speak out and say when they have produced science without grant support.

For instance, if you look through the acknowledgments of my newest paper, you won’t see any funding agencies mentioned. That’s because the paper is self-financed: I paid for everything out of my own pocket. Here’s the cost breakdown:

  • Domain name renewal for Marmorkrebs.org: $32.61 (3 years)
  • Domain name renewal for MarbledCrayfish.org: $20.38 (2 years)
  • SurveyMonkey Pro: $39.80 (two months)
  • Publishing fee for open access journal: $200.12 (may be some bank fees for wire transfer in there)
  • Grand total: $292.91.

I could have shaved it down to $230.94 or so if I was counted the domain name renewals for one year, didn’t bother with the alternate domain name, and if I’d been more efficient downloading and analyzing the SurveyMonkey data. I suppose I could have hacked it down to less than $100 if I was willing to put it in a journal behind a paywall, but I wasn’t willing to do that. On the other hand, it doesn’t include any costs of the computer or software I bought, as those work on innumerable other projects.

A lot of science cannot be done this cheaply. But there is often almost an assumption that all science – or maybe all science worth doing – is supported by taxpayers. Many arguing for open access publication say something like this repeatedly. Some funding agencies may track how many papers came out of their awards – and frankly, some of those numbers are scary, with over a million dollars going into the production of some papers.

But nobody tracks self-financed science. Nobody even acknowledges efficiency, let alone rewards it. I would love to know how much science gets done because someone simply eats some or all of the costs because it’s faster and simpler to open their wallets than get and manage a grant.

Let’s celebrate the indie spirit.


Faulkes Z. 2010. The spread of the parthenogenetic marbled crayfish, Marmorkrebs (Procambarus sp.), in the North American pet trade. Aquatic Invasions 5(4): 447-450. http://dx.doi.org/10.3391/ai.2010.5.4.16

Shiny Toy Guns picture by Nirazilla on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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