One in four is not OK (#1in4)

In April 2016 on April 29, 2016 at 3:14 pm

Original plate (1836) of a Western Ground Parrot spotted by Bowie in London this week. This bird is now critically endangered, with only 140 individuals left. 

*Bowie: I was riding a bicycle through the hail and rain of cold Cardiff when I heard the news – budget cuts at CSIRO mean one in four jobs specialising in biodiversity conservation research will be axed.

Yes, one in four jobs (#1in4).

Now, I should confess at this point a vested interest: I am Australian and jobless, with my degree majoring in environmental science (botany and ecology), and my Honours essentially focused on…yep you guessed it…biodiversity conservation research. Be that as it may, learning about these changes to CSIRO forced me to pull over, find shelter at a Cardiff Bay servo and write a rant on Facebook. What follows is a refined version of that rant one day on.

How can Australia – the land of plenty – be letting something like this happen? When travelling as an Aussie the first things people say is ‘oooh kangaroooos and koalaaaaas’, ‘beautiful beaches’, ‘I love the Great Barrier Reef!’ We are home to some of the world’s most loved, unique, and sadly most threatened creatures and landscapes.

Now, about those cuts: here’s a brief summary of how the current situation evolved. The CSIRO – Australia’s leading science agency and headed by Larry Marshall – announced plans to slash around 350 jobs in an email to staff back in February. This included 110 climate research positions, and approximately 100 from the agency’s Land and Water division. In their submission to a Senate inquiry hearing on the impacts of these cuts, The Royal Zoological Society of NSW calculated this to equate to approximately a quarter of ecologists within the division. At a time when the world is experiencing a mass coral bleaching event (in which only 7% the Great Barrier Reef is reported to have escaped unscathed) these job cuts will hurt Australia’s unique and threatened ecosystems for much longer than the short-term funding cycle they were based on. The environmental juggernaut Sir David Attenborough himself essentially criticised the Australian Government for not doing enough, leaving us a laughing stock on international stages.

At this point you might be expecting a plea to save jobs for those poor old ecologists who just want to help the planet. Well, as heart-shattering as this news would’ve been for the individuals and families affected (or fledgling biologists trying to get their foot in the door), there are many more opportunities overseas. I recently visited an old mate who’s moved to Oxford University for this exact reason. We were discussing how Australia’s politics on science have become laughable within the international community, despite a strong reputation among the world’s oldest and top universities that the research going on in Australia is still top notch. It should come as no surprise then that Australian ecologists are world leaders (to use the words of our politicians) and being headhunted by overseas and international organisations like Panthera. So no, I wouldn’t feel too bad for those who can’t find a job in Australia – did someone say London calling?

Even if job prospects rebound in the next three-five years, the knowledge and people lost will be felt for much, much, much longer.

I am proud to be a part of the community focused on our environment, and not just from a scientific perspective (because it’s not about that). I studied environmental science at university because I love the great outdoors, despite being told I’d be better off in one of the ‘harder sciences’ like physics or chemistry, or even engineering. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s all fascinating and necessary stuff, as we require the fundamental understanding gained from those more traditional sciences to develop cures to new diseases or new sources of energy, and inevitably help the environment we live in.

With the federal government’s own State of the Environment Report (2011) highlighting a decline and ongoing loss of biodiversity, why are biodiversity staff within the CSIRO seemingly suffering targeted cuts within the broader staff/budget cuts? Compound this with similar bare-bones operations of most state agencies, independent organisations, and even NGO’s and you realise how big a hit Australia’s environmental sector is copping.

My honours research focused on managing biodiversity conservation within Arid Recovery Reserve. This reserve is world renowned for its successful activities in reintroducing critically endangered and locally extinct species, such as the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur) and greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis). This could not have been achieved without support from many sectors, but especially funding from what was then Western Mining Corporation’s Olympic Dam. Since then, money has become tighter with new owners BHP Billiton. Even mining is suffering – due to reduced demand for coal and ores – which can actually have negative environmental impacts, with companies cutting support for environmental projects like Arid Recovery. As funds dry up, this once-great feral-free reserve is suffering intrusions from rascally-rabbits because of the simple fact that fences can no longer be maintained.

I fear for the Australia we are leaving behind. I do not wish to be a part of the movement currently swirling out of Australia to a land not down under, but up in the air and over to Europe, Asia, or the Americas. I do not wish to be a part of this brain-drain – even if it is better for my career. I would love it if Australian science had half the public support seen in countries like Denmark. I say public support because the time when policy listened to reason has passed, but the popularity contest means we as a public can steer Australia into a smarter future. With another election looming, leaders will be looking to sweeten their parties’ pie with deals like the new submarine deal.

ritchie copy 2

Source: Twitter @EuanRitchie1 New subs = $AU50 billion,
initiate Gonski reform = $AU6.5 billion, entire ARC budget 2015-16 = $AU0.83 billion. 

So I’ll leave you with this point: it’s not the jobs losses you should cry out about, nor the fantastic (and often fanatic) people who once loved those jobs. What you should tell your friends is that Australians don’t seem care for what is quintessentially Australia. It is no longer ‘what kind of world do you want to leave for your grandchildren?’ but ‘what kind of world do you want to live in?’

Because this is happening now and each of us can make that decision. #1in4 is not ok – so please spread the word and keep this in mind when you vote in Australia’s Federal election in July.

*Guest post from ecologist and science communicator Matthew Bowie. Learn a bit more about Bowie in his first Science for Life.365 blog post 

  1. Nice post and spot on in many regards. I do disagree on one small point though. I’d argue though that “there are many more opportunities overseas” disproportionately applies to single researchers with no dependants and/or researchers with some form of monetary support (whether that be having worked in a well paid job or family support etc)- while some outside that category are in a position to upsticks and leave, most are not and it likely means that the people you lose from the profession are more likely to females with kids and people from lower socio economic backgrounds.

    • Thanks Lachlan! Yes that was probably a somewhat uneducated statement on my behalf, so my appologies for this. I do realise single researchers would have a potentially easier decision to move their life (still not an easy thing). What you are saying about greater likelyhood of female researchers with kids or those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds being lost from the profession opens a whole other can of worms. This would mean that these cuts would disproportionately affect these people – in a system trying to equalise the balance between men and women regardless of socioeconomic background or family situation. Further adding to the reasons why #1in4 is not ok.

      • No worries :). I wouldn’t say uneducated, its going to be hard to cover all bases but its a point worth considering I think. Good write up in any case.

  2. Thanks for your comment Lachlan, and your response Bowie.

    This sort of trend (increasing pressures forcing out people with families, women, men and women from low socioeconomic backgrounds) is exactly the opposite of what we need in science. Diversity is good for everyone, and people happy in secure jobs are free to use their creativity and intellect to its full extent.

    • Spot on. Diversity is good for everyone (and we clearly also think conservation researchers are good for everyone too 😉 ). It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, especially with an election coming on.

  3. Our elections seem to have higher and higher stakes lately…so many massive issues on the line. I wish one or more parties would really present some good options.

  4. […] contributions from Kirsti Abbott, Mia Cobb, Cameron Webb, Heather Bray, Tiki Swain, Geoff Hudson, Matthew Bowie and several […]

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