Money (That’s What I Want)

Once you pay someone enough to allow them to live comfortably, bunging more money at them is not a terribly effective motivator.

In Britain, or England at least, we seem to have great trouble really accepting this. The banks crashed despite the hugely escalated salaries paid to the chairmen, but we don’t learn. I wonder if Sunday’s abysmal performance by the overpaid England team and their £6m man will make more of us wake up to it.



I love this post which I came across via @paul_clarke. It’s long and worth reading, but to summarise one key point: It describes someone who turns down a much bigger salary somewhere else, because the job he has already pays enough for him not to worry about money, and allows him to pursue his vocation as an artist. The moral is “hire artists”. More cynically one could say “hire smart, creative people who have a passion for something which doesn’t make them a living, and give them less money but more flexibility”. Either way, it works and everyone wins.

I wouldn’t necessarily say “hire scientists” to do second jobs. I’m not sure you can really be a scientist as second job or a hobby. Though if all employers had the enlightened attitude of the Bern patent office maybe at least some theorists could get by.

Nonetheless, and despite what my guest blogger might think, most scientists are not primarily motivated by money. We all need to live, but after that’s taken care of, other things kick in. Like the desire to find out how stuff works – whether that’s fundamental physics, life, or the cool new thing we are trying to make. It often feels a privilege to be funded to do this. So as a society we get more scientists per pound than we do many other professionals. Science is not unique in this, there clearly are other professionals not motivated primarily by money; teachers and medics seem obvious examples. Many politicians too, despite the expenses scandal. Money does play a role, as does the desire for recognition and influence. But money is not the main driver.

This attitude can be abused. This outrageous example (via @sciencepunk) goes some way to explaining why some scientists have no life, as well as perhaps why women are under-represented. While any exciting job will take over your life occasionally, this is not a sustainable norm. It’s also not something a boss can drive you to, except possibly by example. The motivation to work late and work weekends comes from a burning desire to get results and solve problems, not (primarily at least) from a desire to impress the boss. Especially if the boss is an arse and has no bonus pot to make up for it.

Scientific research, and academic life, can become a treadmill. In some fields it’s tedious lab work. In mine it’s computer code and shifts. For everyone I suspect there are spreadsheets, paperwork, and far too many meetings.

Lunch queue

ATLAS: Hungry for data. And lunch.

I’m in Copenhagen this week for ATLAS meetings. I left my children on a sunny Sunday evening when there were all kinds of fun things we could have been doing. I grumped my way through check-in because of this (and because of the football). But I’m not looking for sympathy, because this week we are discussing lots of new LHC physics results for the ICHEP conference. Motivating. And Copenhagen is Wonderful™.

Though if anyone wants to bung us more money that would be fine too.

[band video and photo credit, Mike Paterson of Colliding Particles.]


About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
This entry was posted in Particle Physics, Physics, Science, Science Policy, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Money (That’s What I Want)

  1. ronanpeter says:

    This is a common theme in much of the progressive economics coming to the fore more and more these days. The publication of The Spirit Level and Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth both elucidated in a simple way the fallacy that more money equals a happier outlook. Money is subject to diminishing returns like all other commodities. Yet the science is light years ahead of the politics. The UK Sustainable Development Commission, who Tim Jackson worked for, was scrapped just this week, as if we needed to be reminded of the gap between the science and politics.

  2. timlshort says:

    Google has that approach I understand. Engineers get one day a week to work on their own projects.

  3. James Monk says:

    Bell Labs was owned by and run for a money making company who let (some of) their scientists do fun interesting stuff as well as make money for them. They won a few nobel prizes, famously including the discovery of the CMBR. According to the Wikipedia article on Bell Labs they don’t do much in the way of basic research anymore, which is pretty sad.

    *That* is how the equivalent for science should work. You can lure scientists to work for you by offering something like Bell Labs.

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  5. Paul Clarke says:

    There’s a big hole in much of the commentary I’ve seen of the “how much do you need to earn…” genre.

    In a way, it all turns on the word “comfortably”. For many I know, including probably me, real need is a bizarre construct way beyond the Maslovian standards. Even once one has secured food, shelter, basic education for kids and so on there are all these other ghouls that rear up… Usually to do with the imprint on the child’s mind of the ideals the parent prescribes as “success”.

    So not just basic education, but private education or top public school education lure some. Others don’t just need the house, but the house in the right place, with the right neighbours, to feel they have become “comfortable”. And with each extension to the personal model so the cancer of expected needs is transmitted to the generations below, leading to general misery and discontentment.

    The lucky artist in the example given is perhaps a rarity. As well as recognising that the freedom to live his art is worth more than money, he’s also broken the shackles of parental and peer expectation (self-imposed, or seeded? – it’s hard to say) and got on with the business of self-fulfilment. To be envied indeed.

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