by Sue Stocklmayer
What are the problems experienced by young scientists today? How clear a career path do they have? These were some of the questions which formed the focus of a recent forum to "highlight the lack of career opportunities and career structures for young scientists engaged in research". FASTS (Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies) and the National Tertiary Education Union got together in mid-March to host the Forum, at which I chaired the first session on behalf of WISENET (a session entitled "My Brilliant Career in Science — Young Scientists Speak"). The Forum was attended by a large group of interested and concerned industry and university representatives including the Chief Scientist, Professor John Stocker.
Before the Forum, seven case studies were prepared which exemplified current difficulties. For example, Ms Louise Minty, of the Melbourne Bureau of Meteorology, found that her MSc was not enough to secure a job in industry — "experience" was required also — and much later, after gaining experience through short-term contracts, she found that a PhD was really needed to continue her science career.
Louise’s story was repeated in various guises throughout the day, as participants described their uncertain, interrupted, travelling careers in science. Dr John Innis, for example, has had 14 homes in 12 years while working with the Antarctic Division.
Women have had to make difficult choices if they wish to combine their careers with outside interests and families. In my own session Dr Catherine Elliot, a geological consultant to industry, explained that after her disappointing experiences with industry as a beginning geologist, (especially a female one) she decided to work from home by setting up her own company.
Catherine’s story clearly struck a responsive chord with the audience, who questioned her at length about her attempts to balance her private life and her work. Dr Michael Pegg, the first speaker in the session, recounted a succession of contracts on "soft money" which resulted in his joining the NTEU team in 1996 as an industrial officer. Dr Pegg had been, by any standards, a successful researcher into influenza drugs, working with several large grants. The stress of continual grant submissions and uncertainties of funding led him to reject his research career.
The second session of the day asked "Do our scientists have the right skills in an uncertain world?" A highlight of this session was the identification of required skills by guest speaker Dr Doreen Clark, Managing Director of Analchem Bioassay. Dr Clark explained that she looks for that indefinable "spark" when employing chemists — that academic qualifications were not enough to guarantee creativity, flexibility and ability to work as a team. Her sentiments were echoed in a later session by Professor Peter Cullen, Vice President of the Cooperative Research Centre Association, who also seeks creativity as well as high ability and good communication skills. The point was made that often these attributes are not stressed in a regular university science training.
The predicament of researchers in Australia was highlighted by the National Press Club Lunchtime Address, televised nationally, which was delivered by Professor Ian Lowe of Griffith University. Dr Lowe’s stature as a science commentator is well known, and lent weight to his call for governments to support the industries of the future. "Until the country gets its reward structure sorted out, Australia will continue to lose out on the growth industries of the future. These are all technology based, and include medical, instrumentation, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and laser technology... It’s hard to be a scientist these days — but that’s where the future lies".
Afternoon speakers like Dr Janice Hirschorn, Policy Director of the Australian Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers Association, echoed Professor Lowe with their calls for more support for young researchers from government. In particular, Janice urged continued support for the "Factor (f)" scheme which has dramatically improved industry spending on R&D since 1988.
An outstanding feature of the whole forum was the high level of agreement that Australia’s scientific research is in crisis, and that loss of funding, increased short-term contracts, decrease in university research and loss of tax concessions were all contributing factors to a bleak future.
None of this was really helped by the comments of the Minister for Science and Technology, Hon. Peter McGauran, that scientists would gain nothing by a "whinge and whine session". More constructive was the general agreement that solutions lie within Australia’s capacity to boost research through high industry involvement and improved tax structures. Collaborations between industry and university researchers were encouraged, as was special ARC funding for young researchers.
A major call throughout the conference was for better communication — for scientists to represent themselves more effectively to the public, to industry and to government. Public perceptions were seen as a key to this communication, which was really the theme of the conference as a whole — individual people like Catherine Elliot talking to each other about their problems, their career paths and some possible solutions. We can only hope for improvement.
Dr Sue Stocklmayer is Lecturer at the Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Faculty of Science, Australian National University.