The medical research institute sector is characterised by fragmented and complex funding structures. This was highlighted in our recent Best and Brightest survey report, as well as problems associated with short-term grants for research projects, and the poor representation of women at senior levels in the sector.
In a recent episode of ABC’s Radio National Science Show, environmental microbiologist Catherine Osborne discusses her experiences as a mid-career scientist, how she faced many of the same issues highlighted in our report and explaining her decision to eventually leave the field.
After returning from the United States in the wake of the global financial crisis, Catherine found that it was difficult to find any research work longer than the 12-month contract that she had secured at a prestigious university.
‘The university offered me a 12-month contract. Now, one of the reasons I had done a PhD was to avoid 12-month contracts, so I requested a three-year contract’ Catherine said.
‘I didn’t expect tenure, but I did want better career options than living 12 months at a time. They agreed to see how it was going after the first year, then contemplate a longer term contract.’
In the role, Catherine set up a lab, was teaching PhD students, achieved some interesting results, and wrote an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant for a three-year project. The grant application was successful, but this did not result in more secure employment. Named on the research grant as a co-author, Catherine could not be paid under the current structures for allocating grants funds.
When Catherine’s old boss at the CSIRO told her of a 3-year postdoctoral position that had become available at the organisation, she thought she’d found her next opportunity. Unfortunately, the CSIRO Staff Association only allow applications for postdoctoral positions from candidates that have completed their PhD within three years of applying.
‘I get frustrated that the Academy of Sciences constantly lobbies the government for more PhD scholarships, while mid-career scientists, who are much more productive, languish.’
The combination of the CSIRO’s hiring criteria, and the Australian Research Council’s grant rules have resulted in Catherine leaving the research sector after a decade long career. Since leaving the industry, Catherine has been working in commercial science. She has an ongoing contract, and is glad to be away from the ‘the stress and uncertainty’ of her former workplace.
Catherine’s experience echoes findings in our ‘Best and Brightest’ survey report, which showed that more than half of respondents planned to leave the sector within the next five years, an outcome that would effectively gut our health system’s capacity to conduct the vital scientific research the community needs.
The problem is especially pronounced for women in the sector.
Catherine told the ABC that, ‘At a recent biological research seminar I attended, 80 per cent of the people under 30 were female. This was reversed for people over 40. The biological sciences certainly have no trouble recruiting bright young females: the issue is retaining them through that critical decade between 30 and 40.’
‘If universities want more women in senior scientific positions, the Academy of Sciences and the national research councils need to change the rules so that the universities and CSIRO begin to treat all of their mid-career scientists, male and female, as valued contributors and not as a dispensable resource that will be replaced by the next flock of PhD students.’
You can read about the challenges facing research scientists, get involved in our efforts to improve the research sector and download our full Best and Brightest survey report into the medical research institute sector, here.
To read more on the current issues around medical research funding and women in medical research, read our fact sheets here.
Source: ABC Radio National – The Science Show [12 July 2016]