The wages of science

As my faithful reader knows, I’m skeptical of the whole notion of altruism. People get all kinds of rewards for giving of themselves, from public acknowledgment to private satisfaction to, in some cases, actual monetary gain. While I had plenty of selfless and selfish reasons to volunteer for a study of diet and Alzheimer’s, I might not have signed up if there hadn’t been a modest stipend.

The more I learned about this study, the less altruistic I felt. Here are some of the sacrifices it would require:

  • Consuming animal products
  • Buying and eating frozen meals
  • Being subjected to two (2) lumbar punctures
  • Letting paternalistic researchers get away with learning something about my DNA that they would not share with me

Not to mention the 15 hours of my time that I would be giving these folks. For all my trouble and compromised principles I would receive a grand total of $220—$20 for the screening visit and then $100 for each study visit. Even the paltriness of the pay, however, wasn’t quite enough to deter me. What eventually tipped the scales against participation was not the amount but rather the form of the payment: a credit card that looks and acts like a debit card (although the consent form had specified that payment would be in the form of a check).

I thought this method of payment would be a minor inconvenience. After the screening visit, I took my $20 “gift card” to the Goodwill store, where my $13.89 purchase went right through (after the clerk reran the transaction (after I explained that it wasn’t in fact a debit card)). A week later I returned to the store and tried to use the balance on the card to pay for about $10 worth of merchandise.

“Your card has been declined,” the clerk said.

Hmm. I had thought that if the purchase amount exceeded the gift card balance, the card would be exhausted and then I would pay the overage in cash. But no, this card required that I know precisely what the balance was beforehand, so that the clerk could charge my card for that exact amount. What a pain! It was too late to do anything but pay the total in cash, but I resolved to figure out what the balance was so that I could use that amount next time I had occasion to buy something.

I won’t bore you with the ensuing exasperation of trying to remember the balance, trying to remember to use the card, and then trying to actually use it. (I even briefly revisted elementary algebra to calculate the pre-tax amount I would need to spend to exhaust the balance. Fun!) Suffice it to say that this form of payment turns out to be way more trouble than it’s worth. I also find it offensive that instead of giving participants a check or cash, which they can use to pay the bills that drove them to donate their aging, unemployed bodies to science, the researchers encourage us to spend, spend, spend, and only on items that can be bought with plastic.

Even if the payment had been in cash, I don’t think $100 per spinal tap would have been enough for this non-altruist.


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