Monday, 27 July 2015

Familiar and Strange

I spent this weekend camping in the mountains of Virginia, near Goshen pass. It had been too long since I'd been in mountains. I saw the Milky Way one night (something which, having grown up in a city with some of the worst light pollution on the planet, still blows my mind). We swam in rivers, and hiked up to overlooks. The scenery was spectacular, and deeply rejuvenating. We stayed in the local recreational area, and camped by a river. The nearest town was twenty minutes drive away. The nearest grocery store nearly an hour. We chopped wood and built fire, bathed in the river (using biodegradable soap). And wherever we looked when in the mountains, we saw only wilderness as far as the eye could see. An endless thick forest rolling out over the valleys and mountains.
The mountains of Virginia

Although I grew up in a big city, I spent most of my holidays around mountains: the Vosges of Alsace, the Pennines of the Lake District, the Jura around Lake Geneva, the Alps of Tessino and Aosta. I've spent countless hours running through steep mountain side meadows, and hiking winding paths to spectacular overlooks, with views stretching out for hundreds of miles.
A few years ago, I was able to take my now husband to the small village in Alsace where I spent part of almost every summer holiday. My great grandmother lived there, and four generations of my mother's family has been there now. The Vosges mountains are old mountains, reaching their maximum height at about 1000m. Yet, because of the Ice Age, the valleys are glacial: flat bottomed and steep sided. This is hiking country, and has been in a semi organised fashion for over a hundred years. And so the paths that run from the village to the mountaintops are well known to me.
I took my husband on a mammoth 9 hour hike along these paths that four generations of my family have walked along. Paths that my aunt and cousins and siblings and mother know well. As we climbed up the steep walls of the valley, we passed from the forests to the high meadows, to this day still used as grazing pasture for the cattle that make the cheese for which the valley is famous. In those pastures, farms provide, as they have done for a century, rustic lunches for the hikers. Because this is France, these rustic lunches are delicious, fresh, and come with wine.  Because this is Alsace, the wine is white, and the lunches are enormous. But they go a long way towards making 9 hour hikes bearable.
When you stand on the top of the Hohneck, the highest point of the hike, you look out over similar geology to what you see in the Appalachians: rolling hills, deep valleys. But the geography is totally different.
The view from the Hohneck
Here the land is patchwork. There are forests yes, but they are cut up by pastures, and the valley floor is cleared of trees, and dotted with villages. And all around the mountainsides, small farms, or old shepard's huts, or the odd old country house, are visible. Even after walking up nearly 500m, the land is still human.
Even in the most remote of Alpine valleys in Switzerland or Austria, one will see these marks of humans on the land. What is more, the landscape of Alsace is in some ways more ancient than that of Virginia: much of the Appalachians was once clear logged for wood and farmland. That is why Appalachian forests do not have millenial oaks like European ones do. But with the westward expansion, men moved on, and the forest grew back. In my overcrowded, ancient continent, people stayed.
The Appalachians, and the Vosges, are both rejuvenating to me. But when I stand on those mountaintops and gaze out at the landscape before me, on is familiar, and one is still a reminder that I am not at home. After seven years, even in those places I like most, I am still a stranger here. And, like all expats, I wonder that if I cease to be a stranger here, then that place where generations of my family have walked will cease to be home.
If I have children, will I show them the path up from their great great grandmother's house, through the valley their grandmother, uncles, aunts, father, and cousins played in, up to the mountaintop that looks over a landscape that their family has lived in for over a century? Or will I show them the endless rolling woods that their father discovered with their other father, that have almost no mark of man on them?

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

An apology, and understanding

I was an ass on twitter last night. PIs and postdocs were shouting about the overtime threshold change, and I jumped in, riled up and angry and not paying enough attention to what was being said, so sure I was of what I was saying. I apologize.
I was made to realize (by someone with great patience) that much of the PI ambivalence to this announcement boils down to it adding yet another financial burden on labs whose margin of operation is already so thin as to be invisible. And so, once again, all our great science problems come back to the question of funding.
PI are, everywhere, trying to square an impossible circle, that keeps getting more complicated. And as much as we may think we understand, we postdocs are not squaring that circle. That burden is the PIs.
I still think this rule change is a rare victory for American workers' rights, after decades of seeing them eroded. I still think that the segue through the discussion of a postdoc's worth this weekend was unecessary, beside the point, and vicious. I still think that in the aggregate, this reform will be for the best. The key word there is aggregate.
But I am also reminded that any new law put forward without adequate funding may quickly become little more than window dressing. And that when it comes to its impact on workers paid by the public dollar, that may be what this law becomes.
In the immediate term, if the reform goes through as intended, I suspect HR memos will be sent, and PIs will watch their postdocs comings and goings a little closer. Maybe fewer marathon experiments will be scheduled back to back. Maybe fewer hours will be worked. Maybe this will actually be good for the long hours culture in academia (though I hear the overtime exempt PIs laugh darkly at this).
But what this ugky episode reminds us most, is that no matter how you cut, no matter what you reform, there isn't enough money for all the people in science right now. And until that's addressed, all reforms like these will have similar responses I fear.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

This isn't about you

I've been trying of late not to blog based on twitter interactions so much, because I think I talk enough on twitter that I don't need to repeat myself on here. But the past few days discussion about the overtime directive has me feeling the need to expand on my thoughts slightly.
To recap, the Obama administration is directing the department of labor to raise the threshold for overtime exemption from $23,660 dollars a year to $50,000 dollars a year, on the basis that that threshold no longer reflects the intent of the law as was written.
Justin Kiggins over at the Spectroscope blogged about whether this would apply to postdocs, who are currently paid $42,000 and $56,000 on the NRSA pay scale set by NIH (I believe that the level are slightly less for NSF postdocs, but I have been unable to find clear figures). Thus, postdocs with less than 4 years postdoctoral experience may be concerned by this change (after 4 years NRSA pay scale reaches the new threshold). This was a reasonable point to make. And then all hell broke loose on twitter.
Initially, most postdocs were incredulous that such a thing as "overtime" could even apply to them. Even today, scientists on twitter are arguing that scientists are overtime exempt, pointing to the very directive that is subject to change. Others argued that fellows are already exempt from many of these labor laws. Which is true, but many postdocs are not fellows in a employment sense: if you are paid our of a PI grant such as a R01 and receive a W-2 with witholdings, you are, to all intents and purposes, an employee of the institutions at which you work (this is also why you are illegible for employee benefits, 403bs and such). Most postdocs were convinced that universities and NIH would do everything they could to find ways around this. Which is probably true, that is how labor reform goes. More disturbing to me was how many were convinced that it shouldn't apply to them. Arguments raged that our work could not be quantified (yes it can), that what we did didn't count as work anyway (yes it does), that we didin't fill time cards (indeed, because the current law does not require it). Anything but the status quo seemed unimaginable, and the very idea that may be a limitation of working hours inconceivable.
The response to the possibility that labor laws might apply here
And then the PIs got involved, and it turned into a standard discussion of what postdocs are owed, what they worth, how we are entitled. We were called "giddy", despite having greeted this entire discussion with (in my view) excessive skepticism. We were warned darkly about what this might do to our employment prospects (by the very people who ordinarily would say that lowering the number of postdocs would be a good thing).
And here is where I lost it.
Because this reform is not about postdocs. As Kiggins pointed out, postdocs represent less than 1% of the people who may be affected. This reform is about bar, restaurant and store managers on $24,000 how work 60 hr weeks. This reform is about how nearly 9/10th of US earners are exempted under current legislation (back of an envelope calculations from here). This is about how, as the reaction of US postdoc shows, no one in this country actually believes in labor law anymore. No one believes that they can be protected from overwork, that pay should be proportional to hours worked as well as talent. No one even believes in the benefits their employer gives them. I have yet to meet a single person at my workplace who takes our (generous) 20 day vacation allowance. And trust me, it's not just because they love their work. I've spent enough time with Americans to know how they are socialized to view vacation as a professional liability.
And yes, laws like this have complex and difficult ramifications for small and medium enterprises. If PIs think finding an extra 6 grand for a postdoc will be hard, think of the restaurant manager trying to calculate whether or not to hire a second manager at 24K, pay the existing manager overtime, or bump her salary to the new threshold.
But when we argue about whether we should be exempt, we are not just doing ourselves a disfavour. We're making an argument that will be used by every boss in every sector against people paid far less and with worse career prospects. 
So, PIs, postdocs: this rule is not about you. It is about fair labor compensation for all workers in the US, of which you happen to be a part. A little less onanistic navel gazing would suit you well at this point.
In 2000, France passed a law mandating a 35h working week for all salaried workers, with further limits on annual amounts of overtime worked. It was cumbersome and stupid, difficult to implement and the subject of much ridicule. But I would much rather come from that tradition then one that is so willing to believe its only right is to work more for less. 
(As an aside, the current salary cap is low enough that most lab techs are also overtime exempt. Have you asked your tech how many hours she works lately?)