Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science in a Fluoro Jacket

By Ross Smith

Contrary to common perception, most working scientists are not “researchers” and don’t work for public institutions.

I am a scientist. I am very proud of that fact and worked hard as a student to become one. In the process I spent far longer at university than my parents expected. After 9 years, including a year as a research assistant, I was awarded a PhD, was able call myself “Doctor” and my parents were proud.

That is a common course for a young scientist, but my career diverged from the expected path. Just before handing my thesis to the printers, I received a phone call that led to me taking up a job at a mine in Papua New Guinea. It was a life-changing opportunity. I did science using helicopters, light aircraft and dugout canoes, and studied ecology in areas that really were pristine tropical wilderness. Wow! My work has continued to provide amazing experiences, but that is another story – or several stories.

I never went back to academia or a research organisation. That year as a research assistant was the only time I was employed to “do research”. I still do science on a daily basis, and I am recognised as a leading authority in several speciality areas. All of that has been achieved while working in private industry. I am now a major shareholder of a small business. My job title is simply “Director”.

I don’t wear a white coat and I don’t work in a laboratory. I work in an office in a commercial district, and if I wear any sort of uniform it is a high visibility shirt and safety shoes at a mine site. This isn’t exactly the common image of scientists, but it should be.

I represent a very large proportion of working scientists – arguably the majority. We are not housed in sandstone; we are an embedded part of the economy, working across all industries, innovating, refining and improving. We make our industries competitive, safe, healthy and environmentally responsible – making this country a functioning developed nation.

We are essential, but we are largely ignored when it comes to science and research policy. In part this is because we are not measured in statistics collected on the scientific workforce. There is irony in that.

In his speech to the National Press Club in March, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Prof Ian Chubb noted that in Australia just under 30% of researchers are in business and about 60% in universities. That figure supports the common perception, but unfortunately like many statistics it is correct but only as far as it goes. The key word is “researchers”. My job title is Director, and that is how the Census classifies me.

Many practicing scientists have job titles that reflect their position in the company that they work for. They are not defined by the type of scientist that they are, because their job is integrated within the business. Very few private organisations in Australia run a research section, and many that did have dissolved them.

In Australian industrial culture, innovation is commonly part of the business. If it is separated it is often outsourced from a specialist private service provider, like my company. Our business culture differs from those of Europe and America in that regard.

In the 2012 APESMA/STA Professional Scientist Remuneration Survey Report, of the 1773 respondents contacted via scientific societies (a skewed sample) only 33.3% identified themselves as having a job function in Research and Development. That was the biggest group. The next three were Management, Analysis and Testing, and Other. So even among members of scientific societies, the majority did not classify themselves as being in research.

So when next you mentally picture a scientist, think of someone in a hard hat, or a suit, or whatever you are wearing now. Scientists are pervasive in our economy, essential to it, and integrated and integral to our businesses.

Despite this, many are not recognised in our society’s discussions of science and innovation policy. We deserve better consideration than that.

Ross Smith is President of Science & Technology Australia (www.sta.org.au), and a director of Hydrobiology, an environmental services provider.