12 December 2011

A patent clerk’s pay, or, why is science so expensive?

In The Guardian, Philip Ball writes:

It is a shame there aren’t more scientific problems that can be solved with pen, paper and a patent clerk’s pay packet.

The “patent clerk’s pay” is a reference to Albert Einstein’s day job when he was young. It sounds so modest. But is it?

I went to Salary.com and looked for “patent clerk.” It didn’t offer any information for that job title, so I went with the patent-related jobs.

The American national median salaries for patent attorneys start at $80,040 for Patent attorney I (entry level, needing 0-1 years experience), and go to $207,858 for a top patent attorney. But lawyers tend to have high salaries, and Einstein was not a lawyer.

Patent agents have an average salary of $74,5000, according to this page. It notes that patent agents have a higher average salary than scientist or engineer. Salary.com gave $83,850 for Patent agent II, but listed no other job levels.

Salaries for American federal patent examiners go from $41,969 to $155,500.

Most of these wages are more than I’m making now as a mid-career, tenured professor. The low end for patent examiners is just slightly lower than my starting salary as an assistant professor was (not adjusting for inflation). Holding out the prospect of stable salaries at a patent clerk’s wages could be a step up for a lot of up and coming scientists.

The broader point here is that we forget how much scientific discovery is simply a question of work force.

We often think that the biggest expense in science is equipment and supplies and machines that go “Ping!” The biggest expense in grants I’ve reviewed and written is for salaries, mostly for students.

We often think that the limiting factors to doing science are intellectual or technological. There are many unsolved scientific problems that we know how to answer. We aren’t waiting for any conceptual breakthroughs or new technologies. We’re waiting for people. We need “hands at the bench” to put in the time to collect the data.

The instabilities of salary is a major limiting factor for science and is probably a big reason a lot of them get out of science: they don’t see a way to pay the bills. Creating permanent, stable positions for scientists would release a lot of scientific research.

Even if it was “just” the salary of a patent clerk.

Additional: xkcd on the pressure of being a patent clerk now.

Photo by tellumo on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

Additional take on the Ball’s piece by John Hawks.

1 comment:

27 and a PhD said...

I cannot agree enough with this. As I transitioned from grad school to postdoc, and now a staff member the picture of how far a grant goes, and where the money is spent. I didn't believe my boss when an RO1 the lab had didn't seem to cover for more than one postdoc and a couple of grad students, but between tuition and some benefits, equipment repair, service contracts, and all the "little" things that add up I was in shock. No wonder the boss gently prodded us to apply for training grants or supplements. It is mighty hard to keep a lab working, even when there are only 3-4 people. Now as a staff, in a place that pays for multiple service contracts, now that I'm on the other side it makes sense. And that's why (partly) I decided to stay away from the TT. I realized I didn't want to spend the next 7-10 years under a PI to try to obtain grants or supplements in this environment, and then consider getting a faculty position. Too much uncertainty, too little pay.