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Survey asks: How much personal cash do you spend on your science?

Although academic research is predominantly funded by grants, scientists—like teachers and people in many other professions—sometimes dip into their own wallets to cover job-related expenses, such as conference travel or open-access publishing fees. Just how much personal finance pours into professional science isn’t clear, but two scientists are now trying to tally some numbers.

The #SciSpends survey came about after marine sociologist Edward Hind, an independent researcher in Manchester, U.K., realized that he had spent more than $1000 of his own money—5% of his income—on work-related expenses over a year. Frustrated by a feeling that he had to spend his own money to advance his career, this past February Hind took to Twitter, using the hashtag #SciSpends to ask other scientists to share how much they’d spent. As the conversation grew, Hind realized that he was a lightweight when it came to personal spending, as some researchers reported shelling out thousands of dollars to keep their work going. And he wondered: Were many other scientists also reaching into their pockets? Was success in science becoming dependent on being affluent enough to pay your own way?

Ultimately, Hind teamed up with marine ecologist Brett Favaro of the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada to conduct the more rigorous #SciSpends survey, which they formally launched 30 March. The two researchers discussed the project—and what they hope to get out of it—in e-mail interviews with ScienceInsider. The exchanges have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why are you doing this survey?

E.H.: We saw that this debate raised a number of questions that we could investigate and that we wanted to investigate. … We really want to quantify [personal spending]. What are the different costs of being a postdoc in North America and Europe? [Does personal spending] increase or decrease as a scientific career advances? Are there differences between biology, chemistry, physics, and the social sciences? Are the entry costs to science greater if you are female?

B.F.: As someone only a year into my first faculty job, it struck me that I didn’t know what I should and shouldn’t be expected to cover for my first group of graduate students. In talking to my peers, it seemed that every student was treated on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes even students in the same lab would have different things covered. While there will always be some inequity in science, it seems like there should be some list of things that we, as supervisors, should be expected to cover for students. Aside from universities usually having a recommended minimum stipend, that list doesn’t seem to exist. We’re hoping this survey can act as a first step in the conversation.

Q: How’s the response?

B.F.: At this point we have received just over 500 responses. We’re hoping this will end up going into the thousands.

E.H.: It’s been the most dynamic Twitter exchange I’ve been involved in and I can’t stop myself from scrolling through the data that we have already collected. The initial findings look to be eye-opening. We’re both in the ecological or biological field, and the response from that community has been humbling. What we really want to see now is responses from different branches of science. I’m fascinated to know whether astronomers too have to pay their way to conferences and whether a chemist’s lab costs are similar to how much I paid for my dive gear [for doing marine research].

Q: What is the most that you’ve spent out of pocket?

B.F.: I have always been fortunate with scholarships and funding, so I’ve never had to spend a large amount of personal money on science.

E.H.: As a marine scientist, the biggest chunk I spent was on scuba diving gear. Even though my former employer got us some great reduced rates, it still cost well over $600. Then it has to be serviced every year and that isn’t cheap.

Q: What costs do you most frequently have to cover on your own dime?

E.H.: The biggest regular hits are conference fees and professional memberships. Conference fees are typically $100 to $500 and can be three or four times a year. I’m lucky if I get more than one fully covered.

Q: What barriers do you face in getting money to cover out-of-pocket expenses?

B.F.: One is time to reimbursement. We are asking about this on the survey because I recall times in grad school when it would be weeks or months before I would be reimbursed for a given expense.

E.H.: Credit card interest is a research expense that is always out of pocket.

Q: What would happen if you didn't use personal funds to cover some of your costs?

E.H.: I am pretty sure I would have to think about giving up on my dream of being an impactful scientist, or at least compromising on it. I’m 110% committed to being a scientist … [but] 110% effort may not be enough if I can’t afford to get to the conferences where I may meet somebody that gives me the job that I don’t currently have. It also might not be enough if I can’t afford to publish in the high impact factor open-access journals where my work is most likely to be seen.

Q: How do you decide how much of your own money to spend?

E.H.: I spend what I can afford on science, and sometimes more. If I hadn’t overextended last year, a symposium I was [leading] would have fallen through. That wouldn’t just have harmed my science, but that of others. I’ll emphasize, too, that it’s not just a decision for me; it’s for my family as well. I can’t spend money on science if that means my family can’t get by from month to month. I know from the #SciSpends chat on Twitter that I am not alone in this situation. Both my wife and I are researchers, and we both spend personal money on conference attendance. But we will veto a conference if we think it means we won’t be able to go on holiday. Scientists need holidays or vacation and, despite what many of us say, conferences are not holidays.