Until fairly recently, you did not choose a scientific career with the idea of getting rich. After the end of World War Two, American academic scientists started out on about $2000 a year - the rough equivalent of $17,000 these days - while few full professors at the peak of their careers commanded as much as $10,000. The American scientist, a writer in Science magazine observed in 1953,
is not properly concerned with hours of work, wages, fame or fortune. For him an adequate salary is one that provides decent living without frills or furbelows. No true scientist wants more, for possessions distract him from doing his beloved work. He is content with an Austin instead of a Packard; with a table model TV set instead of a console; with factory rather than tailor-made suits. . . . To boil it down, he is primarily interested in what he can do for science, not in what science can do for him.
Around the same time, a US senator asked Karl Compton, a physicist and president of MIT: 'Do you believe this is a correct statement, that probably of all the professions in the world, the scientist is least interested in monetary gain?' Compton agreed: 'I don't know of any other group that has less interest in monetary gain.'
LRB 20 March 2008 | PDF Download