Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Unrest in the Ranks – and Rankings

By Guy Nolch

Working scientists are becoming disenchanted in the workplace at a time when scientific literacy of students is slipping.

Last September this column discussed a report that science graduates were having difficulty finding employment related to their studies. The Grattan Institute’s bleak conclusion was that “employment directly related to science expertise is unlikely to increase substantially in the near future”. One would hope, then, that those who had managed to storm the gates of employment in science would find their careers rewarding.

Apparently not. A survey by Professional Scientists Australia, discussed in this edition by its CEO Chris Walton (p.41), has found that working scientists are disgruntled about several aspects of their careers. “More than a third of respondents reported being dissatisfied with their current level of remuneration and over a third said they were considering leaving their current employer,” the report said. “Many were concerned that their remuneration package 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.”

The report also found “broad concern about science skills with around seven in ten respondents saying cost-cutting was impacting science capability in their organisation,” while “over half said deprofessionalisation in their organisation was a major concern”. It’s not surprising, then, that 61% reported that worker fatigue had increased in their organisation over the previous 12 months, while 56% said staff morale had declined.

The Grattan Institute had reported in August that the job market could not absorb the large number of science graduates. At least, it would appear, our younger generation is scientifically curious, and society at large will benefit from having a scientifically literate generation capable of competing in an increasingly technological world.

Apparently not. Two reports issued late in 2016 found that Australia’s international rankings in science and mathematics have slipped. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study examines science and maths capabilities in Year 4 (49 nations) and Year 8 (39 countries). Since the last survey in 2011, Australia has slipped from 18th to 28th in Year 4 maths (remaining 25th for Year 4 science), and from 12th to 17th in Year 8 maths and science.

Separately Australia was one of only three countries with significantly decreased maths and science scores among 15-year-olds tested in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The high water mark set by Singapore puts their science students 1.5 years ahead of ours and their maths students 2.5 years ahead. Even within Australia there was an alarming disparity of nearly 3 years of schooling between students in the highest socio­economic quartile and the lowest.

Programs in place that aim to inspire students to follow careers in STEM will come to little if their wider peer groups aren’t engaged by science and their career aspirations in STEM are dissuaded by reports of professional disillusionment. As Walton warns, the government’s “so-called ‘ideas boom’ will simply implode unless we have the people to make it happen”.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.