Saturday, March 22, 2008

Salaries of American scientists at the end of World War II

At the beginning of Steven Shapin's review of Craig Venter's autobiography -- A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life -- we find this bit about faculty salaries in the US in the 1940s and 1950s:

Until fairly recently, you did not choose a scientific career with the idea of getting rich. After the end of World War Two, American academic scientists started out on about $2000 a year – the rough equivalent of $17,000 these days – while few full professors at the peak of their careers commanded as much as $10,000. The American scientist, a writer in Science magazine observed in 1953,

is not properly concerned with hours of work, wages, fame or fortune. For him an adequate salary is one that provides decent living without frills or furbelows. No true scientist wants more, for possessions distract him from doing his beloved work. He is content with an Austin instead of a Packard; with a table model TV set instead of a console; with factory rather than tailor-made suits. . . . To boil it down, he is primarily interested in what he can do for science, not in what science can do for him.

Around the same time, a US senator asked Karl Compton, a physicist and president of MIT: ‘Do you believe this is a correct statement, that probably of all the professions in the world, the scientist is least interested in monetary gain?’ Compton agreed: ‘I don’t know of any other group that has less interest in monetary gain.’

In fact, the enormous wealth thrown at American science from early in the Cold War was already beginning to erode these sensibilities. In the 1950s, it was increasingly said that the scientist uninterested in material rewards ought to become an extinct species. Americans respected occupations according to a money metric and it was, therefore, a disservice to the dignity of the scientific profession for a researcher to settle for a cheap car. The Science piece elicited a quick response: ‘The plumber who owns the new Packard and the salesman who owns the new Buick can only look with pity upon their learned neighbour, the professor, who can hardly afford to keep up his Austin.’ The labourer was worthy of his hire, and if that labour was reckoned to contribute to national power, social welfare and commercial profit, why shouldn’t scientists be richly rewarded? Why shouldn’t they do science in order to secure such rewards?

It was physicists who first experienced a bump in their salaries and, for a few of them, an entrée to the corridors of government and corporate power. And while many scientific disciplines enjoyed Cold War largesse, those few commentators who fretted about the effects on knowledge of ties to wealth and power both expected and hoped that the life sciences would remain forever unaffected by such things: calm and quiet disciplinary spaces where traditional scientific virtues might continue to flourish. By the mid-1970s, these hopes had been proved wrong. ...

Here's a a previous post on faculty salaries in the US at the turn of the previous century.