Friday, May 22, 2009

Calling out the New York Times

As I learned at a conference that I was attending, the New York Times apparently ran an article recently attacking the reputation of famous physicist and Nobel prize winner Isidor Rabi. The article implied that Rabi was a traitor and had passed nuclear secrets on to the Israelis in order to help them construct their first nuclear bomb. (Although they have added a 'correction' to the article, the graphic still identifies Rabi as a 'leak' or source of information for the Israelis' nuclear program)

This may not be of real interest to a lot of people outside the physics, but to one person in particular, the speaker, it was an outrage. His displeasure stemmed from the fact that he knew Rabi personally and disagreed with the assertion entirely.

There's one thing that I've learned for certain, being a physicist is something like being in a family. Internal bickering may occur concerning this issue or that, but attacks, or perceived attacks from without the physics society are taken very seriously. And physicists tend to be very political.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Taxes, Tax Breaks and Graduating

I've been contemplating the math behind graduating and getting a new job over staying in academia. Its actually an interesting dilemma when you get right down to it. See, as a graduate student you get paid roughly $20 - $30k depending on how much TA work you do, how much you get in scholarships and whether or not you have an NSERC/SSHRC grant.

Thanks to the Martin and Harper governments (mostly the latter than the former), scholarships are now 100% tax free. Moreover, with tax deductions for students on things like residence rent, university student credits and otherwise, it is relatively easy to avoid taxes altogether as a student. So if you earn $30 000, then you really do have $30 000 to spend. Deducting $5000 for yearly tuition and books and you have about $25 000 cash to spend on all the other amenities of life.

Graduate Student After Taxes/Tuition Earnings: $25 000

As a member of the workforce however, this is no longer true. You earn enough to start paying taxes, and generally your expenses will be higher. A graduate from a Masters program in Canada earns on average $60 000. This seems like a nice jump from the $25 000 that you make as a student but when you start breaking it down, it starts looking less and less promising.

First of all, lets make a few assumptions. We assume that a graduating student maintains the exact same lifestyle that he had when he was a student with the only exceptions being those necessary for his career. That is, we assume that if the graduate student lives in a crappy apartment they stay in that crappy apartment, or a similarly crappy apartment while they are working. (Yes this is unreasonable, but bear with me)

Income taxes on a yearly salary of $60 000 amount to approximately $15 000 ($10 000 federal, $5000 provincial). Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance then knock off an additional $2000 and $1000 respectively. So we're down to something around $47 000.

As a graduate student, a car is not necessary. Generally you'll live close enough to a university to commute in either by bus or by alternate means of transportation (ie your feet/bike). And many universities give away bus passes as part of their tuition now. Cars, not being cheap, will probably cost you something like $6000 in a year between insurance fees, car repairs and gasoline ($3000/year insurance, $40x52 weeks gasoline, $1000 repairs/year). Now you're down to $41 000.

Working Graduate After Taxes/Expenses : $41 000

Amount Gained by Finding a Job Over Staying in Graduate School: $16 000

We're still earning more than you would in university for sure. But graduating from university will bring with it a series of lifestyle changes that I assumed before would not happen. Graduates will upgrade to a nicer apartment, they'll start buying nicer things, like brand new appliances and toys. None of which is a bad thing, but its important to remember that you're really not earning that much more than you were before, despite your pre-taxes salary figures. And it can get eaten up pretty quickly. Factor in an increase in apartment rent costs from $750/month to $1200/month and that will cost you $5400 more. Maybe consider a major overseas trip once per year for your vacation, that'll cost you $1000 more at least. The list goes on and ultimately, you're living somewhat better, but not as much as you think.

The one consolation is that as a working person, your salary increases with each year that you work. Whereas a graduate student, you're pretty much stuck.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Who's Funding Science Now?

Well, things got nasty quite quickly with Iggy crowned as Liberal leader. But unfortunately for him he's (a) not mindful of history and (b) an outright liar.

Ignatieff claims that science funding has been cut every year since Harper got into power. That is not true, NSERC funding has been increasing each year at the roughly same rate as it was under Martin... until this year. Which is hardly surprising, under Chretien, while they were trying to eliminate the deficit the funding for NSERC in particular decreased for many years.

That's not a criticism of Chretien. That's reality. When governments seek to eliminate a deficit it is understandable that they will seek to cut funding for different programs, and the NSERC budget in fact has ballooned from around $400 million in the mid-1990s to around $1 billion now. That's a 150% increase in less than 15 years. Since Harper took over NSERC's budget has increased from around $860 million to over $1 billion. That's a 17.5% increase over 3 years and it increased in two of the three years that he was Prime Minister.

Moreover, NSERC funding is not the only way of looking at 'support for the sciences'. Other funding councils have similar trend lines (SSHRC) and Harper's funding for research spaces through universities is a badly needed injection especially with the increased costs of construction in recent years and the need to support general infrastructure. All in all, Ignatieff's comments are blatant lies and it is disgraceful that the media has failed to call him out on it.