Etching out a track in science

In October 2014 on October 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Kirsti career science

Kirsti: Last week Radio National’s Life Matters show featured a segment on early career researchers. Natasha Mitchell posed the question,

“Are we at risk of losing a generation of young scientists?”

I say yes, we are.

If you are under the age of 60 and in science, I’d suggest you listen to the podcast of that show. It chews the fat on some very important issues for science in Australia, for individuals in an already volatile labour market but also those trying to understand our planet, our place in it, and our potential to shape it.

Insecure short term contracts, tightening of funding for science, and lack of generational change in research teams were the main topics that were tackled on the show. There was also resounding consensus by the interviewees that etching a career in research in Australia at this time is hard.

Casualisation of the academic work force is happening all over Australia. I know, as I am directly impacted — partly by choice, partly not. I believe the shift to casual employment undermines the skills and value of workers, and provides no means of progressing upward. Furthermore, there is little to no opportunity to build a cohesive academic culture with casuals. Typically they don’t feel motivated to become a ‘real’ part of an institution that doesn’t want them ‘officially’, but is willing to exploit their talents for a teaching semester (or 12) or a special project. Needless to say, this is extremely damaging to scientists and – going beyond remuneration – it helps to maintain what Doug Hilton from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne calls ‘perpetual scientific adolescence’, or the ‘career neverland’.

Lack of generational change in research teams is a relatively recent phenomenon. Little turnover in the workforce since the 1970’s meant that older researchers were retained and those coming out of postdocs never really got the same chance to become independent. Consequently, researchers that spend a decade or more refining their skills aren’t faced with job ads and gaps to fill. Instead, they are continually more reliant on senior researchers for funding and positions within research teams. They never really get a chance to flourish, to be innovative lead researchers in their own right.

The treadmill starts there – with few to no grants to their name they’re less competitive, and being less competitive won’t land you a permanent job. Round we go.

The lack of funding for science compounds this problem, as the competition for money favours track record and productivity, not potential. So early and mid-career researchers are once again reliant on permanent, senior academics to be primary investigators on grants. The names on applications are the established scientists’; the brilliant ideas come from the younger scientists who are in the prime of their innovative and focussed careers. Round we go again.

Recently I’ve been thinking that staying in science and research without a permanent job is sort of like owning your own small business. Lots fail. Not the majority, but lots. You have to find your own salary every year. You are constantly chasing contacts, leads and potential for the next project or funding round. As a casual, you are doing this with no holiday pay, super or other benefits, and many do it while parenting on an almost full time basis. Lastly, it’s not looking like anything is going to change anytime soon.

I must admit, I am super happy with my decisions around my career trajectory. I am making conscious non-traditional stories around how to blend research with education, communication and understanding of nature (both engendering and sustaining a connection with it). It’s hard in many respects, but I like a challenge. Part time everything seems to be the answer for me.

But I really feel for those brilliant young things who have never, or who will never get a chance to discover their potential as a lead researcher.

Australia is far worse off for it.

[image thanks to wiredforlego on flickr]


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