Beware: research technicians need more than just a pulse

An experienced lab technician is one of the most readily employable people in the R&D-intensive industries. fungiman_MD

Earlier this year the American journalist David Plotz wrote in Slate that:

America needs a lot more good engineers and scientists, more competent scientists, even more mediocre scientists.

I agree that America, and the rest of the world, would certainly benefit from more science and engineering literacy generally. But there is quite a stretch to then assert that the world needs more mediocre scientists and engineers on the job market.

Does the world need more mediocre artists, musicians, athletes or surgeons? I suspect Plotz didn’t mean there was a shortage of second-rate scientists but perhaps there is a shortage of scientists at the foot-soldier level.

In case you don’t know, these are the technical staff and laboratory experimentalists who, under direction, provide the essential, practical embodiment of the speculative hypotheses of research scientists.

Skilled research technicians are highly valued in industry because without them, of course, nothing gets completed. In order for a scientific breakthrough to be patented prior to commercialisation it requires two critical steps:

  1. the conception of a novel and useful idea
  2. the practical demonstration that the idea works

The latter step is the so-called reduction to practice aspect of an invention, and it’s usually here that the research technicians play a vital role in the scientific ecosystem.

An experienced lab technician is one of the most readily employable people in the R&D-intensive industries. These jobs are well-respected in the community, provide challenging and rewarding work experience, and usually attract well over the average salary in Australia. They are also quite difficult to fill with qualified scientists.

Why is this so?

Prevailing culture

First of all one must understand the prevailing culture in the Australian scientific research environment. Research technicians are typically university science graduates, whereas the senior research scientists, scientific project managers and research directors additionally hold PhDs.

It’s not a rigid rule and there are good counter-examples both ways. Some research technicians who never completed a PhD degree are the equal or superior of anyone who has. Conversely there are PhD graduates who deliberately forgo project leadership roles to remain technicians “at the bench”.

But for the most part, a PhD graduate in science is looking for a career path that will include autonomously directing scientific projects, and perhaps more senior management roles.

Recruiting PhD graduates into research technician positions is fraught with problems due to mismatched expectations regarding career prospects. So the ideal research technician is one with an undergraduate degree with some additional laboratory experience such as an Honours degree or Research Masters degree, or a few years experience in an industrial lab.

Shortage? What shortage?

Although it runs counter to media reports of a skills shortage in science and engineering, when advertising for PhD scientists (research chemists, for instance) in the past few years we’ve typically received more than 150 quality applications from all over the world.

This is in part due to the collapse of the traditional “big pharma” pharmaceutical company job market in the US and Europe – a collapse that flooded the market with experienced senior scientists. Indeed many of these research scientists will, in desperation, apply for research technician positions whenever advertised.

As previously mentioned, going down this path can often lead to overqualified, disgruntled employees. But good quality Honours- or Masters-qualified research technicians are difficult to find, in part due to perverse incentives in the scientific labour market.

In 1988 the Dawkins education reforms, among initiatives intended to improve the efficiency and competitiveness of Australian higher education, converted all Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs) and Institutes of Technology into universities.

This well-intentioned policy has subsequently been criticised as an ideology-driven, socialist agenda to eliminate university elitism.

Ironically, the reforms have also been criticised for introducing a neoliberal, user-pays and market-driven model to the entire higher education system in Australia. Either way, one of the unintended consequences of this restructure has been a decrease in the diversity of university training.

Product placement

In a recent Press Club speech UNSW Vice-Chancellor Professor Frederick Hilmer AO described the above situation as a pretence in the sameness of Australian universities.

He drew attention to the loss of educational diversity that previously existed when CAEs and universities had separate educational purposes: the skills and knowledge needed for the workplace, and the skills of critical and creative thinking and scholarship as ends in themselves, respectively.

Some 20 years ago, one of my colleagues quipped that if a piece of lab equipment was broken, a Monash graduate would reach for the phone while an RMIT graduate would reach for a screwdriver. Now all Australian universities produce a similar product – and it’s not as well-suited to the research technician role.

Different but the same

A compounding problem is that all of these new universities are funded on the same model. This is largely based on competitive, temporary grants awarded to individual academics by federal funding agencies such as the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Grant funding is inherently unstable, exceedingly competitive, and success is heavily predicated on publications as the working currency, which in turn depends on people in the lab churning out results.

University research labs are primarily staffed by postgraduate students and postdocs so there is a strong vested interest for academics to encourage even mediocre graduates into PhD candidature. As one of my academic colleagues confessed: “As long as they have a pulse …”.

The demand for more PhD students to generate publications creates distorted incentives, and even an artificial sense of shortage. But the demand inside universities is not reflected in the scientific job market.

Science PhD graduates may increasingly find it more difficult to find employment than BSc or MSc graduates, due to a mismatch of supply and demand.

There is no obvious quick fix to this dilemma. While “reduced expectations” is not really the forte of Generation Y, it may be that a PhD will soon be the entry-level requirement for a research technician.

Professor Hilmer has suggested deregulating domestic undergraduate fees and easing the restrictions of the Australian Qualifications Framework as ways of allowing universities to evolve into teaching universities, or highly specialised research universities, or vocational schools and so on.

This strategy of encouraging differentiated higher education institutions, where each can play constructive roles, sounds very much like an attempt to unscramble the Dawkins egg.

That may well be a tall order.