Scientists have been among the heroes of the pandemic, but away from the headlines their careers are more precarious than ever.
Georgia Carson often says she will always love science but that she doesn’t think it loves her back.
Despite having a successful research career so far – landing a job as a researcher at a major medical research organisation shortly after completing her PhD – she doesn’t see herself continuing in academia.
“It feels like constant failures [in] research, not just experiments but paper and grant rejections… I can’t live like that for much longer,” she told The Spinoff.
It’s not just the rejections. Carson says the academic landscape is too precarious, with researchers needing to jump from one short-term contract to another, from funding grant to grant, never sure how long a job will last or what lies ahead.
“I was exceedingly lucky getting a couple of years’ full-time [work]. Everyone looked at that and said ‘wow’,” she says.
Carson is not an outlier. A growing number of New Zealand’s science researchers view their futures as bleak, with stiff competition for only a few fixed-term contracts and even fewer permanent research positions. Add on top of that the struggles that come with being a person of colour or a woman.
Yet these are the researchers who are figuring out how cancer multiplies or trying to solve New Zealand’s pest problem. They’re the ones searching for solutions to climate change and measuring and advising on our Covid-19 response.
Without them, it would be near impossible to combat some of the biggest challenges facing the country, and the world, today or create new possibilities for future generations.
The independent body that advocates for scientists in Aotearoa, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, has a vision for how the science system could be. But are we too far down the track to change?
The long and winding road
Twenty or 30 years ago, a typical career path for a scientist was fairly straightforward.
Someone would start off by going to university – a point of difference from their peers as only around 16% of New Zealand school leavers enrolled in tertiary education in 1970.
They would go on to do a PhD, a rarity reserved for people who wanted to join academia. During that three to four year stint, they’d complete a series of studies under the watchful eye of a more experienced supervisor.
That would be followed by a postdoctoral fellowship (postdoc), a kind of scientific internship. They would lead a research project and get a taste for teaching, mentoring, writing academic papers and networking at conferences.
The postdoc might last a year or two and then they’d apply for a lecturer job somewhere. A lecturership would give them a stable income, a university support structure and students to teach, and set them on the path to promotions to move up the academic ranks.
The bunged-up pipeline
Compare that to the current era, when around 84% of NZ adults enrol in tertiary education of some kind.
Although the number of New Zealanders completing PhDs is still relatively rare – around 1% of according to OECD indicators – the country also attracts some 4,500 international PhD students every year.
The below-minimum-wage pay for PhD students is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems they face.
Universities are churning out more PhDs with little to no increase in the number of research positions available at the end of them. As a result it’s now typical for a researcher to spend more time in limbo, completing two, three, even eight postdocs. Often it means moving from one place to another.
And being hired at a university as a researcher increasingly means being hired as a contract worker, rather than a full-time lecturer. In a survey of University of Auckland scientists in the early or middle stages of their careers, half were on a contract of two years or less, and nearly one in three reported they were currently on at least their fifth contract.
Ben Dickson, a research fellow in chemistry for the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, considers himself fortunate to have a research job. As part of the role, which he’s had since 2014, he’s expected to train up the next generation of scientists.
“To me it just seems crazy that I’m expected to get people in and train them to do a job where one of the last positions available locally was taken by me. What is the future I’m giving them?” he says.
He doesn’t think institutions are purposely secretive or deceptive when it comes to laying out the realities of being a working scientist, but says it does still come as a surprise for many entering the profession. “It’s certainly part of the academic trope… But it’s still a shock,” he says.
“I’m very open and honest when I take on students and I say ‘look, the chances that you’ll get to be me are relatively low, so make sure you’re doing this for some other reason as well.’”
A limited pot of gold
Imagine a scenario where you’re sitting in a job interview and your future employer turns to you and says “yeah, we’d love to have you but can you provide your own salary and pay for all the stuff you need to do your job?”
That’s the premise many research scientists in New Zealand operate under.
Researchers and research organisations get money through a series of contestable funding rounds most of which are divvied out by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).
Jamie* is an example of the issues this funding model creates. He’s a successful early to mid career research scientist at a prominent New Zealand university (he doesn’t want to be named for fear it will negatively affect his chances of getting funding in the future).
He’s on a three year contact and the maximum he can get through the grant that covers it is $1.4 million. That might seem like a lot of money but it has to cover salaries, consumables, operating costs and overheads. Overheads alone can be in excess of $200,000 a year (almost half the grant over three years).
“If you look at the numbers, it’s quite clear. I need to have two or three large projects going at a time, but it’s not possible. You can’t expect one small team to do all that,” he says.
He adds that there’s a push, rightly so, to promote more collaborative research to tackle some of the tough issues. But instead of allowing for bigger grants or more stable positions, researchers end up dividing up the pot into even smaller pieces.
“I had a grant rejected because I needed to improve collaboration. But for a $200,000 grant, I cannot afford to split the money.”
This kind of competition-based funding can go all the way up to the research organisation itself. Even the country’s biggest research institutes, Crown Research Institutes or CRIs, are funded on a four-year rolling basis.
According to a 2020 independent review, this model has meant that several CRIs face “recurring threats to their financial sustainability” which, at times, hinders their ability to “consider priorities beyond survival”.
It recommends a better balance between stable and contestable funding, especially for high-priority research such as around climate change.
And, while focused on CRIs, it states the issues apply to the wider science system as a whole.
When success in grant applications comes down to commercial success, it means less emphasis on the kind of foundational research that sets the stage for big innovations or solutions to longer-term problems.
At a breaking point
Many of the researchers The Spinoff spoke to are holding out on short-term contracts in the hope that a permanent position becomes available somewhere. Despite many being successful on paper, with publications, awards and patents, there are still no guarantees.
Kate Lee is another research fellow, a molecular biologist studying diabetes. She says the current science system leaves researchers feeling anxious and stressed, particularly as their contracts near an end.
“I realise precarity and fixed-term contracts are a thing in many careers, but the lack of funding means those Christmas holidays come with an ever darkening cloud.”
A 2021 Te Hautū Kahurangi/Tertiary Education Union survey found that 47% experience high or very high levels of stress. Precarious work as well as unachievable workloads and uncaring bosses all contribute, the survey found.
Carson says: “By the end of my PhD I had missed birthdays, lost friends and ruined relationships. I hugely admire those that can use their drive to uncover more about the world, and outweigh the difficulties of this lifestyle, but I feel like I’ve used up that drive.”
There are extra stressors associated with the current pandemic, such as international researchers unable to see their families from overseas because their visas wouldn’t allow them to return to New Zealand after.
What lies ahead
The New Zealand Association of Scientists recently proposed an overhaul of the science system. It outlined 11 recommendations to get science back on track, including valuing people, cultivating pathways for Māori and Pasifika in science, connecting science with policy and communities, fostering collaboration rather than competition and developing ways to assess whether the system is working.
It also recommended reinstating a ministry dedicated to science and research, instead of having science sit within MBIE. Doing that could help remove some of the corporatisation and short-term funding problems, it says.
The pandemic has highlighted how well science can work when it’s supported by an increase in science funding and a greater emphasis on collaboration. What’s more, trust in scientists was one of the greatest determining factors for how resilient a country was to the virus.
For Carson, it comes down to seeing science research as a long-term investment, rather than a series of projects. But, she says, “right now we’re cutting ourselves short for the future”.