Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Career Concerns Could Bust the Ideas Boom

By Chris Walton

A survey of professional scientists has uncovered worker fatigue and broad dissatisfaction with remuneration and reduced scientific capability as a result of cost-cutting.

With the launch of the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) at the end of 2015, the Australian government reiterated its commitment to innovation and science. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says that the NISA recognises that the “talent and skills of our people is the engine behind Australia’s innovative capacity”.

However, the latest Professional Scientists Employment and Remuneration Report (http://tinyurl.com/hopb4e8) suggests that recognition and reward issues underpin a range of serious systemic issues in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

While 46.5% of scientists surveyed by Professionals Australia were satisfied with their current level of remuneration, more than one-third were dissatisfied with their current level of remuneration and over one-third were considering leaving their current job. Of the 8.5% who had changed jobs in the previous 12 months, 27.3% did so for a pay rise – more than one-third of respondents in both the public and private sectors had received no pay increase at all in the previous year. Many were concerned that their remuneration was falling behind market rates for those undertaking similar work, and that their package did not reflect the level of responsibility they undertook in their day-to-day work.

Some 61% reported that worker fatigue had increased in their organisation over the previous 12 months, and 56% said staff morale had declined.

Seven in ten respondents reported that cost-cutting was impacting the scientific capability in their organisation, and four in ten said their equipment capabilities were growing faster than staffing. These are not signs we’d expect to see in a sustainable and engaged workforce, and the findings should ring alarm bells for anyone concerned about the STEM workforce.

If anything, the market is likely to become more challenging for science and R&D-based organisations that want to retain their high-calibre science talent, with the participation rate and average hours worked below the levels of a few years ago. These leading indicators of labour demand point to only modest employment growth in the near term, with many scientists looking to the international job market to provide employment and funding certainty.

If we’re to grow our innovative capacity, we need to invest in a strong national STEM capability, and ensure a committed and sustainable science and R&D workforce. We need to not only attract the next generation of scientists and researchers to STEM subjects at secondary and tertiary education levels, but also address workplace issues that lead to attrition from the sector, and the consequent waste of time, talent and taxpayer dollars when scientists and researchers opt out.

Ensuring Australia’s ongoing science and technology capability must be one of our most critical priorities. We need to maintain a science and R&D workforce with the necessary skills and experience to support knowledge-based investment and drive innovation.

To do this we need to ensure that science-based organisations have equitable and effective recognition and reward strategies and a commitment to maintain a strong science capability at management and decision-maker levels. This is the only way we’ll attract and retain the next generation of scientists in the profession.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, said the report provides a sound overview of the employment, pay and conditions of the scientific workforce. “Science is key to unlocking the world’s best possible tomorrow. It’s a grand vision, and for many scientists it’s more than a job – it’s a calling,” he said. “For Australia and Australian businesses to lead the way into the future, we need to recognise the value of the professional scientific workforce, and provide incentive for the next generation to aspire to professional scientific careers.”

Valuing our STEM professionals is the key to developing a strong, agile STEM workforce and ensuring we have the capability to meet future challenges and keep our best and brightest in STEM. The so-called “ideas boom” will simply implode unless we have the people to make it happen – and this means backing innovation policy with a commitment to proper respect, recognition and reward in the workplace.


Chris Walton is CEO of Professionals Australia (www.professionalsaustralia.org.au/scientists).