Written by David Aborn
I just wanted to provide my perspective on the issue of trying to make it as a conservation biologist in the face of meager (if any) pay, since I have been on both sides; the student looking for experience and the researcher trying to give people the opportunities. I think part of the problem is professional and part of it is societal. On the professional side, there has long been the mindset that being a suffering, starving student is part of the experience and that “we did it, so they should have to as well”.
The good news on this front is that the mindset is changing. To be sure, there are still many people who think it is a rite of passage, but more and more there are people (like myself) who know that students and assistants are valuable and are trying to set themselves up for a successful career, and we try to find enough money so that they don’t have to struggle. BUT…that leads to the societal issue, which is that funding agencies and state and Federal governments do not place as high a value on conservation as they do for things that have more applied human value.
For example, for FY 2020 $335 million was allocated for endangered species recovery; that amounts to about $1.00 per person in the US. Compare that with $623 billion for defence spending. The International Space Station has cost $150 billion and the human genome project was given $5 billion. Even within endangered species spending, a big chunk of it went to steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, species with economic value. Out of 1,600 species that are currently listed under the ESA, only 158 received at least $ 1million in funding (the Cumberland bean, a freshwater mussel got just $60!).
I don’t mean to get lost in the numbers, but I am just trying to illustrate what we are all up against. Unfortunately, until society recognizes the total value, not just the economic value, of conservation for society, I don’t see things changing much, at least not here in the US. We can’t pay you what we don’t have. In addition, some grants do not allow for the money to be used for salaries, or if they do, it is limited.
I know it is cliché and doesn’t mean much, but if being a conservation biologist is what you want to do, hang in there and your perseverance will be rewarded, even if it is a struggle. In 1991 I took a seasonal position on the Gulf coast helping with a migratory bird stopover project. I was paid $50 per week for 8 weeks, which was enough to cover my gas from Maryland to Mississippi and back, and for food (we were camping on a barrier island, so lodging was not an issue). It was definitely a gamble, but it directly led to a Ph.D opportunity, which ultimately led to where I am today.
I recognize the situation is worse for BIPOCs, who may not have the resources to take the meagre or volunteer jobs, and hopefully that will change as well. All of you should know that there are people out there trying to help you as much as we can and we want you to succeed.