Young Australian scientists questioning the status quo. Part 2: The issues

Dodgy phone photo #2: Panel discussion (Prof Andrew Hopkins, Dr Marnie Blewitt, Prof Tony Peacock)

The gist of the Forum was that frankly, the situation for young scientists in Australia is pretty dire. Here are some themes that came up time and time again (these do not necessarily reflect my views, just what I was hearing at the Forum. If you were there and think that I got it wrong, feel free to comment).

Job security: Young researchers (who aren’t teachers/lecturers) can expect to wait until they’re about 50 to get a permanent position, if they’re lucky. In the meantime, they jump between 1-5 year contracts, and spend the last 6 months of those contracts trying to get their hands on the next pot of money to keep them going. And you have to work bloody hard to get that next pot of money, because there is nowhere near enough to go around and funding is very very competitive.

During this process, you are expected to continually progress in your career, accumulating ever more students, money and staff underneath you. There are no options for those who do not want to eventually manage a big lab, because there is no money for “staff scientist” or “rolling postdoc” positions. You are also expected to move A LOT, from lab to lab and institution and institution, preferably between countries to gain skills and meet people. If you have family and other commitments to consider, tough luck. This makes it especially hard if there are two researchers in a relationship (not uncommon), and one usually has to sacrifice their career for the sake of the other.

Women in science: We were told the story Ruby Payne-Scott, a pioneer of radio astronomy who worked for CSIRO during the 1940s. Ruby kept the fact that she was married a secret, because married women were not allowed full-time positions in the public service. In 1951, she was forced to retire after she fell pregnant with her first child Peter Hall; a huge loss to her field (though Peter was a big gain to the field of statistics. Not that that justifies anything). So have things gotten any better for Australian women in science?

They certainly have at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, where they have introduced some fantastic initiatives to address the gender equity issue. These were outlined by Marnie Blewitt: special fellowships for female laboratory heads, family rooms, childcare support, parent-friendly meeting times, and technical support for those on maternity leave (more detail available here). These initiatives should be loudly applauded, and I hope they are taken up by many more employers.

Ruby Payne-Scott, Alec Little, and “Chris” Christianson at Radiophysics’ Potts Hill Reservoir field station, probably in late 1948. From ATNF Historical Photographic Archive, Miller Goss

Sadly though, another piece of advice that I was given was that if I do have children, I should not bother going part time. If I want to keep my job or get the next job, I’m going to end up working the equivalent of full-time hours anyway, sneaking in paper writing while my baby is sleeping. “It’s sexist to expect women to go part-time when they have children, when they end up working the same hours as men”. While I think this person’s heart was in the right place, this, to me, is mortifying. Why do women in our research culture feel they have to work the equivalent of full-time hours after they’ve just given birth?!?

In reality, parenting responsibilities are only part of the problem, because there are still some serious fundamental cultural issues that need to be addressed. Do we just implicitly assume female scientists are less competent? (this new paper in PNAS shows that we probably do, at least in some fields).

Poor science education and communication: Unfortunately, there is something of stigma attached to the move from research to teaching, and particularly teaching below the tertiary level. If you’re teaching, it’s because you weren’t successful enough as a full-time researcher. Scientists don’t want to be teachers these days, and the level of qualification of science teachers drops with age, most acutely for physics. This is having an impact on what should be the next generation of scientists, as the number of high school students interested in a career in science continues to decline. Ian Chubb noted that in a survey, 33% of year 12 science students, and only 1% of non-science students thought that science may be useful for their future.

Dodgy phone photo #3: Young scientists asking questions at the Forum.

Clearly, we’re not doing a very good job of communicating the importance of our work! And this is having serious flow-on effects, with murmurs of delaying all contracts funded through the ARC for a year as a means of bringing the federal budget back to surplus (presumably because it was believed that if you put science off for a year, there wouldn’t be any great disadvantage or loss to society).

The lack of mobility between academic science and industry: Another issue is that young scientists apparently don’t want to work in industry or the public service, which may be perceived to be something of a cop-out (much like teaching). So there aren’t enough jobs in academia, but we’re hesitant to take them anywhere else! This may be partly due to the fact that PhD supervision is somewhat one-dimensional, with supervisors and universities grooming students to become academics and not providing diverse training opportunities for positions elsewhere. There is also the (justfied) fear that if you leave full-time research, you won’t be able to get back in.

There is also the fact that industry doesn’t really want us. Apparently we’re over qualified, can’t work in teams, don’t understand how to balance books, and can’t work outside of an academic time frame (i.e. we like to have a bit of a think about things before making recommendations and decisions). We also only go and talk to those in industry when we need partners for linkage grants, so we’re really missing out on some key sources of non-ARC funding and collaboration.

Where does all that leave us? Read on.