love or money

As a researcher in academia I hadn’t put together something that, when it clicked together for me yesterday, I found pretty key. Yesterday I was giving a brief presentation on something that I had been working on with my co-workers that has been funded by government and is intended for the public. It was in counterpoint to a similar product that a researcher at the University of British Columbia had developed for research purposes. He had developed his tool for the interest and love of meteorology and climate science. We had developed our tool to satisfy the province of BC and political motivations of some people. It occurred to me that there is a major distinction between academic research and other research and that it boils down to is this:

In academia, research is mainly done for the love, on however obscure level, for the topic that is being researched. My friends who study glaciers and get paid far too little for it do it because they are deeply interested in the topic and have faith that some form of compensation follows. Of course, the payment isn’t all passive, but they aren’t out to get rich either. However, when private industry wants to conduct research they aim to do so to make more money. Furthermore, because private industry can work on an investment level, they can be more willing to put more resources into research if it is likely to turn a profit for them at some point. Of course there are a lot of much more blurry lines here, but I think the basic concept is sound. Because of this imbalance, academic researchers feel threatened by industry research. They fear that they will be outpaced by it, outspent, and also that the work will get done shoddily.

One consequence of the love/money way of doing things is that academic researchers are much more likely to be painstaking because they are not up against deadlines most of the time and are truly interested in finding out answers for the sake of knowing the answer. In private research, the emphasis is on finding answers that make money and thus the answer is only as likely to be complete as the answer most efficiently gains money for the private entity.

I currently work for a not for profit corporation and am not totally clear where my employer falls on this spectrum. But in realizing the above, I think I understand why my colleagues in academic research treat our institute with caution and sometimes feel threatened by it. Some of our money comes from private or semi-private entities and because of that investment our progress may be forced to be more rapid, more resources can be thrown at the problem, and sometimes less emphasis is placed on the scientific quality of the work. My recent struggles at work producing reports to satisfy what were essentially artificial deadlines is rooted in this distinction. If I were doing the work for pure academic research purposes, I would have done things differently and would not have released anything until I felt that my results were bullet-proof. But we aren’t for-profit and there is some room for academic wandering and I’m trying to decide if that’s enough to keep me morally happy working here.

At the end of the day you should be working for the love. If what you love is money, then you should be working for some private, profit driven entity. If what you love is what you love, then you should be more careful, be ready to be poor, but also be prepared to live a much more fulfilling life. Because, in my mind, money is an empty thing to love.

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