There has predictably been much attention in Australia this week on the state of scientific research funding. Just a couple of examples:
- Uncertainty over research funding is corrosive
- Research facilities prepare for shutdown as government refuses to secure funding
Both ultimately refer to the same situation in Australia – funding for a number of research facilities is inextricably linked to reforms from last year’s budget for the higher education sector. Meaning that the government has made science a political play thing. If the senate and the house don’t pass the government’s higher education reforms, the research facilities don’t get their budget, forcing a shutdown.
When facilities shut down, people leave. And I don’t just mean they go and do something else for a few months while the government stuffs around until they miraculously find the money to reopen the facilities. I mean that they pack up and leave the bloody country. Don’t kid yourself, I’m one of them. I am at risk of losing my job over this.
And it’s also not just about the money – although that is ultimately what it boils down to. This casualisation of the research workforce is pervasive. Most of us are on short-term fixed contracts of less than 12 months.
Here’s something you probably don’t know about starting a new research job (unless you’re a researcher, in which case you’re probably just nodding your head while you’re reading this):
- You spend the first 2-3 months in a new job doing paperwork, workplace health and safety inductions, and other general administrative shenanigans. Yes, it is totally normal for it to take 6 weeks for your new employer to even get you a computer so that you can start work.
- You then spend the next 3 months collecting samples or generating data.
Oh look, half way through our 12 month contract and we’ve not even sent anything off to the lab for analysis yet! Awesome!
- Now you have to send your samples to the lab for analysis. Or if you’re lucky you’ll have access to a lab to do it yourself. Give yourself 3 months for this, and pray to whatever deity you (or don’t) believe in that there’s no screw-up’s in the lab and your results are actually valid.
- Finally got your results? Fantastic. Now you have to interpret them and write up everything in a report to give to the people who funded your project. You also obviously have to write everything up for publication.
What’s that? Your contract just ran out and you have no money left, and you’ve not finished the work because the lab stuffed up? You didn’t finish writing your report by the time the project funding ran out because there was an unavoidable delay with the analysis? What is it that Einstein said?
If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
Sometimes the simple reality is that our ideas just don’t pan out. That’s the nature of research. You have an idea, you test it. Hopefully your idea was good and you get some valid results. Sometimes you don’t. That’s life.
You also had to spend the last 6 months of the 12 month project rushing around trying to find another job, because that’s how long the lead time is on advertising for scientific research positions?
It’s not just about the money. Except it is. Most researchers are on short-term contracts, where they end up spending the entire second half of the contract trying to secure a new one, rather than being able to focus solely on their research. This is the stark reality of scientific research in Australia. It’s too short-sighted. Nobody is going to make a huge scientific breakthrough when they’re spending half their contract worrying about how they’re going to put food on the table in a few months time because their contract is about to run out. Again. Scientific research needs a more long-term vision, where people are actually given the time to think. Which brings us back to the money. Again.