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  • NATURE PODCAST

Researcher careers under the microscope: salary satisfaction and COVID impacts

Listen to the latest from the world of science, with Shamini Bundell and Nick Petrić Howe.

In this episode:

00:45 Salary and satisfaction survey

Like all aspects of life, scientific careers have been impacted by the pandemic. To get an insight into how researchers are feeling, Nature has conducted a salary and satisfaction survey. We hear from some of the respondents.

Careers Feature: Stagnating salaries present hurdles to career satisfaction

09:07 Research Highlights

The physics of a finger snap, and the surprisingly strong silk of jumping spiders.

Research Highlight: It’s a snap: the friction-based physics behind a common gesture

Research Highlight: High-speed spinning yields some of the toughest spider silk ever found

11:23 Briefing Chat

We discuss some highlights from the Nature Briefing. This time, the plans to smash a spacecraft into an asteroid, and how baby formula is changing to better resemble breast milk.

Nature News: NASA spacecraft will slam into asteroid in first planetary-defence test

Chemistry World: The science of breast milk and baby formula

Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03537-9

Transcript

Listen to the latest from the world of science, with Shamini Bundell and Nick Petrić Howe.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, a survey of researcher salaries…

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And a test to shield Earth from killer asteroids. I’m Nick Petrić Howe.

Host: Shamini Bundell

And I’m Shamini Bundell.

[Jingle]

Host: Shamini Bundell

The pandemic has impacted almost every part of society and has had profound impacts on how we work. The world of science has been no different, and Nature has been tracking the latest twists and turns for scientists through an annual careers survey. Here’s reporter Julie Gould with more.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

Over the last ten years, the Nature Careers team has been running a salary and satisfaction survey.

Interviewee: Chris Woolston

We are asking scientists from all different parts of the career spectrum about their experiences.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

This is Chris Woolston, a journalist. He’s been involved with the study since 2016, helping to set it up and then analysing the results that come in.

Interviewee: Chris Woolston

And in this survey, we didn’t just ask about salary or job satisfaction. We also asked questions about mental health, we asked questions about burnout, issues of diversity and inclusion, which is increasingly important. And I think that we really got a good look at what it means to be a scientist in this world, whether you’re in Australia or the US, whether you’re in biology or physics. There’s a lot of similarities and a lot of problems that we all need to be aware of.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

This year, the survey attracted self-selected responses from more than 3,200 working scientists, spanning all disciplines and countries and a mix of genders. Surveys like this are useful because they shine a light on issues in the system that can be changed and improved for the scientific workforce. So, let’s take a look at some of the successes and problems that come into play in the life of a scientist. Firstly, a big one – salaries. Chris says that the 2021 survey showed that salary satisfaction has increased since the survey was last done in 2018.

Interviewee: Chris Woolston

The majority of respondents are actually satisfied with their salaries – 52%. And that may not seem all that impressive but it’s an increase over previous surveys. For instance, in 2018, only 43% were satisfied with their salaries. So, there has been a bit of an uptick in that, and we see that people are making more as a group than they used to.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

One third of respondents reported making more than US$80,000 a year, which is up from about 23% in 2018. Now, this all sounds great so far, but it is worth looking at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Interviewee: Chris Woolston

Almost 1 in 5 say that they make less than US$30,000 a year, and 9% make less than USD$15,000 a year. And when you look closer at that, 7% of full professors say they make less than USD$15,000 a year, which is something that is just really shocking to think about and I think that we need to pay attention to people like that.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

Seven percent of full professors who responded to the survey make less than US$15,000 a year. I wondered whether being able to see this comparison would be difficult for those who are at the lower end of the pay scale. Edmond Sanganyado is a marine scientist at the University of Shantou in the Guangdong district of China. He did his PhD in the USA, held a lecturer position in his home country of Zimbabwe and then moved to China for the postdoc and assistant professor roles. His salary decreased with every new career move until he became an assistant professor. His current salary is comparable to his salary as a PhD researcher in the US. Edmond says that although this might sound disheartening, you need to think of your bigger picture.

Interviewer: Edmond Sanganyado

So, I don’t really compare myself with what others are getting, but I’m kind of like trying to look at the context that I’m living in. So, what I noticed, especially when I include the cost of living aspect, research grant opportunities and all of those things, I noticed that even though it’s very low compared to other places, right, I find it’s okay with the way I’m living and the cost of living. I’m living in a small town so the cost of living is not that much of the salary, so you can actually plan ahead, leave some savings and those kinds of things. So, it’s fine. As a PhD student, even though the salary was high, it was not enough for a single individual. Because of that I ended up signing up for some federal programmes for low-income families, so that’s how I ended up surviving as a PhD student.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

So, even though his salary isn’t high, Edmond isn’t unsatisfied with it. But his career prospects aren’t satisfying. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a significant dent in his research funds, which has made it difficult to continue at the pace that is required for his role. And this is in line with the results from the survey, says Chris.

Interviewee: Chris Woolston

We had 58% of our respondents say that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their current positions, which is the lowest number we’ve ever had in this survey. Just a few years ago, in 2018, that number was 68%, and the majority of people who took this survey said that their satisfaction with their job has actually gotten worse over the last year. And 58% satisfaction level is not that impressive given the amount of work that these people do, the amount of training that they’ve had, the amount that they’ve invested in their lives. That’s quite a few people who are unsatisfied despite everything that they’ve put into this and, since it’s moving in the wrong direction, it’s a number that we should be concerned about.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

The drop in job satisfaction despite the increase in salary satisfaction might seem contradictory, but Lizzie Knight, a researcher and professional careers counsellor at the University of Victoria in Australia, isn’t surprised. In fact, she thinks this could be indicative of a much bigger change in the world of work.

Interviewee: Lizzie Knight

I think the pandemic has been the biggest kind of change to career thinking since women in the workforce. People not being as worried about the number that their salary is and more worried about the kind of career satisfaction, how career impacts your life, and so I think that that lowest career satisfaction is not surprising when you think of how people are thinking about their engagement in the world, which I think is a seismic shift.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

This seismic shift as a result of the pandemic, she says, is predicted to be leading towards something that has been labelled the ‘great resignation’ by professionals and organisational psychologists around the world. And there are three main factors in career satisfaction that are driving this.

Interviewee: Lizzie Knight

Lack of movement over the last two years, conditions of work changing during the pandemic and showing that they can be changed and three, more attention to the life-wide ways of thinking about your life and work contribute to a prediction that 2022 will be a period of great change and a market in which the people will have the choices to make and change the labour market really.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

Beyond any seismic shift in how people think about the world of work, Chris Woolston noted that many of the survey trends are still negative.

Interviewee: Chris Woolston

And I think everyone needs to be aware of those trends, and everybody who is involved in the scientific system needs to do what they can to turn things around.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

So, what’s the recommendation? How can these things be reversed?

Interviewee: Chris Woolston

Anything that could improve job security would be a huge benefit, and it’s possible that that also requires a difference in the way that people are educated, and the PhD pipeline needs to be diversified. I think that PhD students need to have a more diverse idea of what their options are.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Julie Gould there reporting on Nature’s career survey. You also heard from Chris Woolston, Edmond Sanganyado and Lizzie Knight. You can find links to a series of stories all about the survey in the show notes.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Coming up, we’ll be hearing about a spacecraft that’s going to slam into an asteroid on purpose. Right now, though, it’s time for the Research Highlights, read by Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

A simple click of the fingers boasts some complex physics. The arm loads up energy and then releases it explosively, so that the middle finger hits the palm with a sharp smack. Now, a team has shown that the process is dependent on the friction of human skin. Researchers filmed volunteers clicking their fingers while wearing nitrile gloves, then altered conditions to see how it changed the snap. When a water-based moisturiser was spread on the gloves, the fingers slipped too easily to store up sufficient energy. Too much friction was a problem as well: rubber gloves were better than the nitrile ones at storing energy, but the extra friction hampered the release, slowing the middle finger and dampening the snap. The softness of skin also plays a part. When the researchers added copper thimbles under the nitrile gloves, the thumb and middle finger couldn’t be compressed to improve their contact area, and the snap lost much of its characteristic crack. If that highlight was just too snappy, you can read the research in full in Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Many spiders use their silk to make webs. But jumping spiders, instead of crafting complex structures, leave a trail of silk as they jump from surface to surface. Now, researchers have investigated these hastily spun threads and found that they are among the toughest silk that spiders produce. The team filmed the zebra jumping spider with high-speed cameras as it leapt across 3-centimetre gaps. The researchers also collected the silk left behind, to test its mechanical properties. Even though the spider unspooled itself in 500-700 millimetres per second, it was tough. In fact, the second toughest spider silk yet discovered, a finding the researchers called extraordinary, given the high speeds it was produced at. The researchers hypothesise that the jumping spider might have evolved to spin such tough silk to control its jumps. If that research has caught you in its web, read it in full in Current Biology.

[Jingle]

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Finally on the show, it’s time for the Briefing chat, where we discuss a couple of articles that have been highlighted in the Nature Briefing. Shamini, what have you found for us to discuss this week?

Host: Shamini Bundell

A very dramatic, some might say cinematic, story written up in an article in Nature, and it’s about NASA’s plans to crash a spaceship into an asteroid.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Okay. So, the way you phrased that makes it sound intentional, so what are the reasons that NASA are crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Grand and exciting reasons. So, this is a bit of sort of future-proofing, starting to test something that we hope we won’t need very soon, but the idea is to find out whether, by smashing a spacecraft into an asteroid, we could actually change the course of an asteroid, with one day the possibility being that we might need to do that if there was, for example, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Oh, I see. That makes a lot of sense. So, wow, when’s this happening and how much do you need to, I guess, push an asteroid away to save the Earth from a potential killer?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Well, you’ll be glad to know that they’re not testing it on any actual killer asteroids, nor are they anticipating any imminent killer asteroids. But of course, much as the probability of a huge asteroid coming and hitting Earth might be very, very low, that doesn’t mean it might not happen, so they want to be ready. And this is basically just a first try to see if it’s even possible, so how much you would need to move the asteroid would depend on where it’s pointing and how much it weighs. But they have picked an innocent rock some way away from Earth that poses no threat at all to test out this sort of collision-nudging mechanism and are planning to launch this spacecraft today possibly, depending on when you’re listening to this podcast listeners, but 23 November was the planned launch date. And then in sort of less than a year from now, it will hopefully slam into this asteroid and NASA will be there, looking at whether the asteroid changes course, by how much, and what kind of debris is flung out from this collision.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Well, I guess the questions I have are sort of about the practicalities of this. How much does it cost to launch a spacecraft towards an asteroid and how big and heavy does it have to be to actually change its course?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Yeah, so this poor spacecraft, which is called DART, which stands for…

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

That’s a brilliant ‘backronym’ that someone’s invented. That’s great. I love it.

Host: Shamini Bundell

So, it stands for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test because they’re actually a pair of asteroids it’s going towards but it’s only one of them that it’s going to try and sort of nudge. This spacecraft is about the size of a car, weighs just over 500 kilograms and is slamming into a much bigger rock. So, the asteroid, Dimorphos they have named it, is about 160 metres wide, so significantly bigger. But they’re only trying to nudge it in its trajectory a little bit, and they’re also sending this sort of little probe, which is basically following DART. It’s then going to photograph them crashing into each other and look at the sort of debris and how DART sort of breaks up and things like that.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Well, I guess this makes our future a little bit more certain then if we can potentially defend against asteroids.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Well, this is literally the first time that they’ve tried something like this, so, I mean, it’s good. It’s reassuring to know that they’re sort of making plans for those unlikely but potentially deadly scenarios. So, I think there will actually have to be a lot more spaceships sadly crashed into asteroids to kind of really test how it works and how it might work on different asteroids as well.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Well, quite promising news there, Shamini. It’s always quite nice to have the future of humanity maybe a slightly bit safer in the Briefing chat. But for my story, I’m bringing us back down to Earth, and I’ve been looking at how baby formula is becoming more human.

Host: Shamini Bundell

More human? Oh my gosh. I’m envisioning all sorts of strange human milk producing devices. Is this supposed to be a way to improve baby milk formula?

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Yeah, so my tongue was firmly in my cheek there when I was saying that. This is actually about making baby formula much closer to being like human breast milk. And so, it’s recommended by the WHO and medical authorities that breast milk is really good for babies, but not everyone is able to use breast milk or they may choose not to, and so what several scientists have been doing, and many companies in this space, they’ve been trying to make the formulas that we have to give to babies much more resembling human breast milk.

Host: Shamini Bundell

How complex is breast milk and how sort of close at the moment, or traditionally, is the formula stuff that you get to the original milk?

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

So, what’s being used at the moment is mostly based on cow’s milk because cow’s milk is very accessible and it’s easy to mass produce. Human breast milk is much, much different to this, and it’s actually really, really complicated. There’s a lot of we don’t know about human breast milk. One of the major differences between it and cow’s milk and the infant formulas that are around at the moment are these molecules called human milk oligosaccharides, which are like sugars that form the milk, and they make up a large component of the solid part of the milk. And there are actually 150 different types of these, and they’re all very complicated and subtly different and very long branch molecules, and that means it’s very difficult to actually make them in the lab and also to then study them so we can see what it is they do. But because there seems to be so much investment from humans to actually make so many different types, scientists figure that they’re probably important.

Host: Shamini Bundell

You’d kind of think that, with something so sort of common and easily produced, scientists would have already done their analyses and been like, ‘Yeah, here are the molecules in it. Yeah, we’re just going to recreate these.’ But it sounds like there’s two different problems, both figuring out what is actually in it, all the different molecules, and then trying to recreate them.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Yeah, so, the human milk oligosaccharides have been identified but are really hard to study because they’re very hard to separate from one another. So, when you’re trying to separate molecules in the lab, you might spin them or something to separate them out, but the trouble with these molecules is they’re all quite similar but they’re just subtly different, so it’s really hard to distinguish them. And also because they’re quite complex molecules, it’s very hard to chemically synthesise them in the lab. So, it’s been difficult to study them. In terms of infant formula, so far, only two of these human milk oligosaccharides have been put into the infant formula, one called 2’-FL and one called lacto-N-neotetraose. All these molecules have real fun names like that. So, these have been added to certain formulas since 2015, and they seem to be having some positive effects. So, for example, they seem to improve the digestion. There have been studies done, and I don’t envy the scientists doing this, that have been looking at babies’ poo, and the poo of babies fed with breast milk versus normal formulas is usually quite different. But when you add these human milk oligosaccharides, it becomes much more similar to that of the breast-fed babies, so the digestion seems to be improved by it. And also, we don’t fully understand what all these molecules do, but scientists believe that they’re quite involved with immune responses as well, so it could be helping the babies have a better immune system.

Host: Shamini Bundell

So, there are two of them in formulas at the moment, but that’s out of loads that they keep discovering?

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

It’s out of loads that we know of, and, yeah, that’s the idea. People are tyring now to synthesise more and more of them and just try to make the formula more and more human-like. So, there’s been several different ways that have been proposed. One of the main ones is to use bacteria to produce these human milk oligosaccharides. So, you can basically get a bunch of bacteria or yeast and you can put them in vats in labs, give them food and then they will produce all the different kinds of molecules if you’ve sort of genetically engineered them to do so. It’s not trivial, but it’s an economically feasible way in the future. But what some other researchers have been doing is they’ve been using human cells to produce breast milk as well. So, you can get the cells that produce milk in humans and then you can put them in the lab, give them nutrients, and you can get them to essentially spit out something very similar to human breast milk.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Wow, that’s more kind of where I thought this story was going when we started off. So, this could then be like the future of milk formula production.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Yeah, well, it will be great if it was available and to give parents more choice on what they could feed their babies and if it resembles human milk a bit more, you get all these benefits whilst also being able to choose to use different things. And also, it may be able to be used to help with certain diseases. So, there’s this disease that affects infants called necrotising enterocolitis, and there have been studies that have been shown that breastfed babies don’t suffer from this as much as those that have been fed formula. So, potentially, this could help with things like that. So, it’s quite promising and in the future there could be a variety of different options for parents to use, and better and more options for parents can only be a good thing.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Well, that’s absolutely fascinating. And where can we go to read more about this?

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

So, this was an article in Chemistry World, and it was a particularly interesting article because it was written by a mother who found that she was unable to produce breast milk, and so that’s why she was kind of writing this article, which was quite interesting. So, that story and the other story that you discussed about the smashing into an asteroid will be in the show notes, so if anyone wants to read more about that, they can find them there.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Well, great, thanks, Nick. We found both of those stories in the Nature Briefing, which basically delivers some of the most exciting stories of the week from the world of science straight to your inbox. So, you can find a sign-up link for that in the show notes as well.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

That’s it for the show this week. As always, don’t forget if you want to get in touch with us, you can. We’re on Twitter – @NaturePodcast. Or you can send us an email to podcast@nature.com. I’m Nick Petrić Howe.

Host: Shamini Bundell

And I’m Shamini Bundell. Thanks for listening.

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