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This is a joint post by Auriel Fournier and Alex Bond

Over the last several years, we’ve both been advocates for eliminating unpaid field technician positions (see here, here, and here for our previous posts on the topic, and this piece from Nature News). About a year ago, we were both quite frustrated, and decided to make the same arguments we had made on our blogs to a different audience – to those who read the peer-reviewed literature.

So we crafted our best arguments, found appropriate references, and had some wonderful colleagues read it over before submitting it. When the reviews came back, they were more startling than we had expected. In essence, we were asked to prove our assertion that diversity is a Good Thing. Nevertheless, two rounds of revisions (and $150 in page charges from our own pockets) later, our peer-reviewed article entitled “Volunteer Field Technicians Are Bad for Wildlife Ecology” appeared in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in mid-November, and was also posted on ResearchGate.

The reaction has been beyond anything either of us could have imagined.

On ResearchGate, the article had (as of 9 March 2016) 11,724 reads, and an Altmetric score of 173 (the highest for any paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin). To say we were surprised at the amount of interest would be an understatement.

We also received several emails or comments that we will share here (anonymized, of course). The overwhelming majority have been positive or constructive, but we’ll start with the negative comments, including the one that was the most hurtful.

To paraphrase the anonymous emailer who created a new email address just to send this one message:

Your career is over. No one will hire you because of this.

Well, thank you, anonymous emailer. You are an utter ass-hat of the most contemptible kind. Now kindly sod off.

One of us also had one potential collaborator who pulled out because of our position on unpaid technicians. Which is annoying and it means some very interesting and potentially important science won’t get done. But chances are we would have found something else to disagree on, so we’re not that put out.

And really, those were the only negative comments we’ve received so far. No doubt there have been those muttering in disagreement, but they’ve not yet muttered to us.

The positive feedback has, however, been rather abundant.

A field technician wrote:


This was just one of several similar notes, each of which brought (and continues to bring) smiles to our faces.

A scientist at a non-profit wrote:

Hope you are well! I just came across your JWM opinion paper on volunteers and want to say how great I think it is!! I totally agree that it presents challenges to those doing full-time work worthy of pay, and are not getting paid. Even young people doing tough fieldwork getting paid more than $300/month often struggle with feeling grossly under-appreciated. I shared it with my coworkers and we reflected on how to treat our interns better. Thanks for taking the leap to write this!

This was one of our goals – getting people to talk about the issue of unpaid/underpaid technicians in their own institutions.

From another research technician:

Interesting article and I agree wholeheartedly. Although I think these volunteer positions will continue (even the pay to work ones) because they are often sought after. The organizations offering them probably don’t struggle with applicants because people are willing to volunteer just to visit remote nature reserves. Along the same line as your article, there is also a larger issue in that jobs in the wildlife ecology sector generally are not well paid, which essentially causes the same issues as volunteer positions (undermines professionalism, excludes certain groups if people etc.).

Indeed, we see no end in sight for volunteer and pay-to-work positions. Though we’ve started tracking them monthly, and you can see the results over at our Github repository.

Some comments were less clear

The unpaid/underpaid intern situation has bothered me for many years, and someone had call “us” out. One thing I would add is that money is soooo tight that often the PI can’t afford to include the unpaid/underpaid intern’s name in the acknowledgement section of the resulting peer review paper. “We” may also have some issues with acknowledgement.

We are not sure how this comment was intended since neither of us is aware of any monetary limitation from any angle in including anyone, even one’s dog or one’s beard (PDF), in the acknowledgements of a paper.

We also received one long email giving a clear example of how paying technicians to be part of a project does not mean the science is being done well, which was not the argument we were making.

The following came from a professor at a U.S. small liberal arts college:

I have wondered occasionally if a two-pronged approach to this issue would be effective. Writing an editorial to suggest that PIs should incorporate funding for technician seems like a good start. It also seems like it would be worthwhile to write something from the student perspective, suggesting guidelines for when they should consider taking a low-paying (or non-paying) temporary position, how to identify good opportunities, etc.

This is, indeed, an interesting proposition. Auriel has written a bit about applying for field jobs, but as we emphasized in our WSB piece, the decision to accept a position at any salary level is very much an individual decision, and the continued existence of unpaid work and pay-to-work positions is a testament to this (and the number of people willing to accept such positions). The benefits (and costs) vary considerably among individual circumstances, so we’re hesitant to be prescriptive. The most important factor for potential employees (regardless of the level of compensation) is to know your rights, and to make sure the expectations of employer and employee are compatible.

The feedback provided by this person was reflective of several comments we received, and discussions we’ve had:

My take on internships/volunteer jobs. Their role should only be reserved for undergraduates that are still working on a degree. I had no compunctions taking an internship for such low pay. I had very little experience at that point, so the internship was a way for me to learn many different skills to work as a field biologist. I’ve had a few people ask how I got such good experience, and as such good paying field jobs, right after college. working the right internship, that offers lots of learning opportunity, is a good way to help in that regard.

While we’re quite glad that it worked out for this particular person, such experiences and benefits are not exclusive to unpaid jobs. The implicit argument, we think, is that there simply aren’t enough paid positions for everyone, but this is the case in nearly every profession but we don’t see volunteer teachers, for example. In some places, like the UK, trainees have a lower minimum wage. But while many undergraduate students are fresh out of high school with few other obligations (financial, family, or otherwise), this is nowhere near universal, particularly for groups that are under-represented in science (as we argued in our paper).

An African-American faculty member wrote:

But look at undergraduate wildlife classes. You will see already that there are very few of us present. At [research university], I was the only AA (even just minority, I believe) in wildlife for my year (a year later, another AA woman came in). What’s filtering minorities out comes before college, probably before high school. If we want to increase the diversity of our field, outreach efforts need to be concentrated towards childhood and the early teen years, and ideally, we’d have some sort of mentorship program to keep people on a track towards declaring a wildlife/related major once they enter college.

This is, indeed, a very good point. Unpaid positions are just one barrier to diversity in science, and eliminating them won’t solve the problem, but it will help those who’ve made it through to the point where they are looking for such positions. As Simphiwe Dana tweeted recently, “Just because one individual succeeded against all odds doesn’t make the odds acceptable”. Eliminating unpaid positions will help even the odds.

We also received a lengthy message from a female tenured professor at a US research (R1) university:

1) I suspect that many (most?) of your dataset probably consists of technicians recruited to help graduate students. If you make providing not only room and board but also wages sufficient to pay off student loans or supporting sick relatives a requirement, what you are saying is that the only grad students who are allowed to benefit from help in the field are students from well-funded labs and/or working on a project funded by their advisor. Many graduate students do not have access to the types of funding that permit this, yet are doing great science and being highly productive members of our scientific community, precisely because they are able to make things happen on a shoe-string. I firmly believe that PhD students should have a major role in shaping their intellectual development, designing their project, and taking ownership of the direction of their project. This is fundamentally incompatible with a funding model of PI getting a big grant and essentially hiring a PhD student to run it with the help of well-paid technicians. I think your statements that “Unpaid technician positions are bad for science. They are bad for the conservation of our natural world. They are bad for society.” …are wrong because they can make possible a degree of intellectual freedom that is crucial to inventive, original, student-driven research that con contribute substantially to the conservation of our natural world.

Here, we think there are two issues at play. While it’s true that many (though not most) unpaid positions are from academic institutions, we’re not arguing that they should be paid extravagant salaries, but at a minimum, those in line with minimum wage requirements in the jurisdiction of their employer. That is, the minimum legal wage for a set amount of work. We feel this is an ethical issue, which could impede intellectual freedom, but just like other ethical dilemmas within science should not be ignored because of that.

We could also do more research if we didn’t have to pay overhead/incidental costs, pay for fuel or travel, or field station fees or to run PCRs. Field technician salary is no different and should be included in budgets and planning. Even things like applying for and reviewing grants costs money, which could be spent on conservation. But we, as a scientific society, have prioritized this (either consciously or unconsciously) over other uses.

It continues:

For PIs providing minimal compensation, there are undoubtedly fewer justifications. But there are some! You acknowledge that everyone has tight funding and is always looking for the way to maximize data/$. That is not going to change, ever. In a hypothetical situation where you had $3000 allocated for technician support. Let’s image that could pay 1 person well for a field season or 3 at rate where they are able to live and eat but not do such things as pay off student loans. If you chose 1 person, you’d be crazy not to ONLY accept the most skilled, experienced people for the job. If you have the freedom to take 3, you can afford to pick people with ZERO experience, and provide a lot more training. People pay through the nose for formal classroom education. Why should they not “pay” in effect, for training?

This really depends on the situation. Alex, for example, hired completely fresh inexperienced field staff for 3 of his 4 PhD field seasons because they were engaged, excited, and would get on well in the field. Skills and experience aren’t the only factors when hiring. But there is a general trend in closing field stations and fewer offerings of field courses at universities, which is concerning. Indeed, some are even claiming that “We have already lost a generation of field biologists”. But this again comes down to priorities and one’s frame of mind. If you have $3000, and a field technician costs $3000, you hire one field technician. We also feel that part of hiring a field technician is to mentor them as a scientist, and to train them, not just give them $X and get back X data. All projects should include time to train technicians in their schedules, even if they hire experienced staff, to ensure the consistency and validity of the entire project.

This commenter concludes:

3) The people who get the most funding are the old white guys. If only old white guys can have technicians, then we hurt the ability to creative, smart, less-advantaged people of doing science and inspiring others to make things happen for them, even if they work on a shoe-string.

Don’t get me wrong… I do understand the logic of trying to make things easier for less-advantaged students. But I think some of your arguments are a little over-stated. Take this: “How is someone—often with student debt, no outside financial support, a child, a sick parent, an expensive medical condition, any kind of regular life expense, or no family to buy a plane ticket for them—supposed to take these positions?” First, if the potential technician has a small child, a sick parent that requires their assistance, or a serious medical condition, then it is not a good idea to fly off to a remote field site, regardless of the compensation. Like it or not, remote field camps are bad places to bring infants and to be sick. It would be irresponsible of the person hiring to put a sick person or child into situations that put them at risk. What are they to do? Only ever study things within an easy drive of medical attention within North America? I also would like to see data on how much biologists are selecting from the privileged for such positions? That data probably doesn’t exist, but it is crucial to your arguments, and without data, I think it might be premature to state your conclusions so forcefully. I can’t speak for others, but I have actively sought to promote diversity from grad-student days onwards. I also can’t see how these policies affect gender or sexual orientation issues.

The issue of diversity in funding outcomes is, of course, important. And it will take a long time for change to trickle down because those in charge often benefit disproportionately in biased systems.

Field camps also need not be remote, either.  Many field positions occur within range of a hospital that someone who needs regular medical tests or even just access to a pharmacy for expensive medications can do that. Yes there are situations where some will be too sick or otherwise unable to participate in field work, but that is certainly not the rule.

This commenter is correct that we have no data on the affluence of field technicians (nor are we aware of any such data collected). But what we do have is information on diversity at later stages of scientific careers, and where women and people of colour tend to be under-represented. Like one of the previous commenters stated, fostering diversity must begin at an early stage.

There are several references in our paper on the effects of unpaid positions on women (and therefore gender composition). And LGBT folk comprise a vastly disproportionate number of homeless. This is, of course, a very extreme example, but LGBT folk are often less likely to have the support of family who could bankroll their time spent on an unpaid job. While the peer reviewed literature we cited in our editorial is not collected from within the scientific field we do not see a reason that the disproportionate impact had on gender diversity in other fields because of unpaid work would be different in science.

Ultimately we are glad that this article is being read and discussed and we hope that it will continue to be so that in another 12 years another editorial will not need to be written that cites ours and Whitaker 2003. If we value diversity in science we need to stop making excuses and start letting our actions match our priorities.

And lastly, from a tenured professor in Canada:

PS: I am just back from a meeting where we kicked off an international research network that will involve massive amounts of field work.  We used your editorial as a justification to write “no unpaid jobs” in the bylaws. I know it’s usually the angry people that are the more vocal, so I wanted to let you know.

One small change along the road to improving how we do science.

When we first floated this idea about a year ago, we had no idea it would strike such a chord with so many people (both positively and negatively). After all, we don’t think that the suggestion that people should be paid for the work they do was so radical.