Ah January! The crisp (read: bloody freezing) Saskatchewan air, the start of a new academic term, and the time when many of us start thinking about our upcoming field season. All the joys of animal care protocols, collection permits, access permits, and hiring field assistants.
Call them what you will (I prefer “field technician”), but chances are most of us would be floundering (or perhaps even dead) without them. Seasonal field staff provide a great resource to scientists and grad students, and the experience the techs gain is often very important for their own professional advancement and development.
But here’s where I have a problem: if these people are so valuable (i.e., most of us couldn’t do our research without them, for scientific, logistic, and/or safety reasons), why are so many field positions volunteer positions?
The way I see it, there are two main arguments for hiring volunteer field technicians (spoiler alert: I don’t think either is valid). The first is financial. It’s simply just too expensive to hire n field techs at $x/hour (or day, or month) to accomplish what we want to do (which is important scientific work). I’m sure factory owners in pre-industrial Europe said the same thing when employees started asking for an 8-hour work day, or 5-day work week, or honest pay for an honest day’s work.
The second is that the experience is SO AMAZING that most people actually pay to experience it for themselves, so volunteering (but having your expenses covered) is a great deal. This sort of rationalization is the same as above. Imagine the look on someone’s face when I tell him or her that my stable-isotope lab is SO AMAZING that most people pay for their samples. You, I will tell my prospective volunteers, can come in for free to prepare my samples – isn’t that great?
From the tech’s perspective, volunteering (or “interning”, which is where they receive far below minimum wage under the guise of “experience building), could be attractive in that it gives them some valuable experience in a field they likely want to pursue. It’s the old “date before you marry” argument that techs should get to know the flavour of the work before committing to it. But can this not all be done with appropriate pay?
We hire technicians for their expertise and ability to complete a job; not paying them for it undermines their professionalism, and scientists’ ethical standing. Yes, funding is limited, and yes it can be expensive to travel to and work in some field locations. But this does not excuse not paying someone for a job.
It also selects out many who would not take a volunteer “job” because they need to work during the summer to pay for tuition, keep rent on an apartment, or have other financial obligations. It’s a very small minority who can pick up and not get paid for 2-4 months (let alone do it again the following year). This was certainly the case with me. During undergrad, I signed up for a weekly e-mail of bird-related jobs (you can here, and also see here). It struck me how many of these sounded like wonderful studies in neat locations, but had no (or very low) pay. A few even asked me to provide all my own equipment (tent, sleeping bag/pad, food, etc.). I was being asked to functionally move somewhere new, stay for 2-4 months, and not get paid.
If you wouldn’t “hire” a volunteer to fix your car or your house, why would you hire one to collect the scientific data on which your career is built? And if you want to hear just how absurd the practice really is, listen to this [**satire alert**], but replace “government employee” with “field technician”.