Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Researchers Frustrated by Career Prospects

By Ian Lowe

A new survey finds that researchers like their work but are frustrated by limited career paths.

A new survey has found widespread discontent in the Australian research community. In a report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies, experienced analysts Jenni Metcalfe and Toss Gascoigne have documented “bitterness, anger and frustration”, especially among junior researchers struggling to establish their careers. They live with the uncertainty of short-term contracts and poor prospects of grant support. Many also feel they receive inadequate mentoring.

Part of the problem is inadequate funding, leading to unproductive use of time and creative energy. When nearly 2200 apply for support and fewer than 300 succeed, the wasted time and effort is enormous. It is impossible to justify a system that fails about 85% of the most qualified people in the country.

About 1200 researchers responded to the survey. Interestingly, about 80% still said they found a research career attractive.

While some positive features of the Australian research environment were identified, such as the financial support for PhD students, there were many criticisms. The reliance on short-term contracts and the resulting insecurity for young researchers was the problem most heavily attacked, with about 80% of respondents mentioning this as an issue.

While the most obvious solution would be to fund research more appropriately, respondents also suggested changes that do not require much money.

• Grant schemes could be more flexible, with several smaller rounds a year rather than one big event.

• Feedback to unsuccessful applicants would help them to prepare competitive proposals for future granting rounds.

• Modest funds could be made available for researchers to attend major conference and prepare results for publication.

• Workloads of senior scientists could be reduced to allow more time for mentoring of those in the early stages of their careers.

The critical issue that demands attention is morale in the research community. If the brightest young scientists don’t see a rewarding future in a research career, or senior colleagues give them the impression their work won’t be valued and rewarded, we risk losing a whole generation to alternative careers that are less important to our future, less challenging and stimulating to the individuals, but provide at least a measure of security.

Just as the world is losing large animals like elephants and tigers, a new study has found we are also losing our largest trees. In a paper published in Science in December, Australian professors David Lindenmayer and Bill Laurance with US colleague Jeff Franklin showed an alarming trend around the whole world. Whether they looked at mountain ash forests in Victoria, tropical rainforests in Brazil, boreal forests in the far north or the temporal forests of Europe, in every case the finding was the same: the oldest and largest trees are dying at a disproportionate rate.

Lindenmayer says that the problem first became apparent from an examination of Swedish forestry records stretching back 150 years. Then a 30-year study of Victorian old-growth forests found that the oldest and largest trees were disproportionately likely to be seriously damaged by fires. Further investigation revealed that these trees were ten times more likely than their smaller neighbours to die in years when there was no fire.

The researchers think that the decline is the result of a complex intersection of pressures: drought, high temperatures, logging and other causes. They concluded that “research is urgently needed to identify the causes of rapid loses of large old trees”. They went on to call for better management strategies based on that research, warning that policy changes are necessary to stop the situation worsening.

When large trees go there is a general loss of their associated ecosystem functions. They provide food for birds and animals in the form of flowers, nectar and foliage. Hollows and branches give shelter and habitat.

I recall an earlier study finding that the shelter for animals like possums in a particular forest was overwhelmingly provided by trees over 100 years old. The large trees also store huge amounts of carbon, recycle soil nutrients and are critical to water flows in the landscape, as they pump huge volumes from deep below the surface.

The problem is urgent and demands attention.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.