Scientist Shuns DECRA Funding

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An award-winning evolutionary biologist has turned down the most prestigious research fellowship for young scientists in the country in frustration at funding cuts.

Dr Danielle Edwards specialises in reptiles and researches how genetic diversity is affected by factors like the environment.

She said her work fed into important questions around what species could survive extinction and why.

“I work on studying the forces of the environment that shape the evolution of a rage of different reptiles and amphibians,” she said.

“Understanding how diversity is generated across the landscape is going to be important for keeping that diversity in the face of climate change and ongoing extinction.”

For the past four years Dr Edwards has been applying for research positions in Australia, but for most of that time she has only been able to get work in the United States.

Recently she was invited to apply for a position at the CSIRO, but before the interviewing process had concluded the job itself was gone.

“When the Abbott Government came in and put a freeze on CSIRO hiring, that search was subsequently cancelled. I was no longer able to apply,” she said.

Now Dr Edwards has been offered a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) by the Australian Research Council, a hugely competitive award worth $385,000.

But Dr Edwards has chosen to turn it down.

She said the most recent round of funding cuts to science and the prospect of university fee deregulation meant she saw no future in Australian science.

“The prospect of getting a more permanent position outside the three-year fellowship didn’t look good given my struggles with trying to find a position. Declining funding rates were also a notion,” she said.

“Given that most of the research in Australia – if you’re a research scientist – is undertaken by PhD students, the idea that PhD students would have to pay their fees would just mean that you’re unable to get people in the lab to do what needed to be done.”

‘Hard for scientists to produce world-class research’

Dr Edwards said optimism for the future was not great for people who wanted to work in academia and science in Australia.

“The lack of government support that seems to be continuing and getting worse with the closure of CSIRO positions all over the place in general, I think, it’s going to be really hard for Australian scientists to produce world-class research going into the future,” she said.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Science and Technology Australia which represents more than 68,000 scientists around Australia, said the community expected that hard-working people who excelled in their field should be able to get a decent job in their home country.

“It’s always good to go overseas and extend yourself and do some other stuff, but it would be a very sad state of affairs if people felt that there was just no future for them here,” she said.

Dr Jackson said a young career scientist turning down a DECRA was a huge decision.

“They are really, really competitive. Getting a DECRA is an absolute rose in your button hole,” she said.

“Only 14 per cent of people who apply for a DECRA actually get one. If you get on, it is confirmation that you really are one of the best and brightest.”

Scientist stays abroad for security

Dr Edwards also had personal reasons to come home – she was about to have her first child and preferred to raise her baby in Australia but said she had to think about the future.

“I am about to have my first baby and family is a big strong pull for me to come back to Australia and we’d love to dearly go back,” she said.

“But I think my husband and I have found home here in the US, it may not be where we were born but it’s giving us security.”

In the first Abbott Ministry there was no minister for science, and in last year’s budget the Government cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the CSIRO, the Australian Research Council and Cooperative Research Centres.

In the Cabinet reshuffle in December a science portfolio was created and given to Ian Macfarlane.

The ABC’s PM program asked the Science Minister for his response to the news that not even a prestigious DECRA grant was enough to keep bright young scientists in Australia, but his office refused to comment.

It also did not respond to questions about whether there would be more cuts to the CSIRO.

“The Australian Government is putting science at the centre of industry policy and is investing $9.2 billion this year in science, research and innovation,” a spokesman for Mr Macfarlane said.


Especially that last comment from Mr Mcfarlane’s spokesman, given today’s news from CAPA about the $173.3 million cut to the Research Training Scheme – the one that supportsĀ Australian postgraduate students with tuition to actually undertake their research. The one that will now prevent many postgraduate students from enrolling due to the upfront costs that would be required.

Is that really putting “science at the centre”?

Hardly Mr Mcfarlane, hardly.

The cuts to CSIRO? To the ARC? To the NH&MRC? To the RTS?

People actually think I’m joking when I tell them the reason I’m doing my divemaster and dive instructor certifications is because it’s my backup plan in case academia goes balls up. I’m actually entirely serious. I have absolutely no illusions about the state of academia and research funding in Australia. And while I love scuba diving, it’s still a sad state of affairs that I have so little faith in the future of scientific research in this country, that my backup plan is to basically go and become an underpaid beach bum.

Personally, I was only eligible for a DECRA grant for one year. Because I was already in my 4th year post-PhD when they actually came into existence, it meant that I only ever got to apply in one grant round, because requirements were that you had to be within 5 years of completing your PhD – which completely screwed early career researchers like myself who graduated years before the grants were even available. Prior to the DECRA grants, we were stuck applying for funding in the Discovery rounds – and as everyone in Australian research knows, you don’t get a Discovery grant unless you’ve already got tenure.

Good on this woman for being honest about the state of affairs. I hope this gets picked up on by the major media outlets and that it publicly shames the government.


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