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We want to work, but research funding cuts will hobble us

Things are going from bad to worse for early-career researchers. SandiaLabs

We want to work, but research funding cuts will hobble us

More than 1,000 senior university academics this week signed an open letter to the prime minister, Julia Gillard, opposing A$2.3 billion worth of cuts announced to fund the Gonski reforms to school education.

So why do I care, besides the fact the cuts sound like robbing from Peter (tertiary education) to pay Paul (primary and secondary education)?

Of the A$2.3 billion of cuts, A$900 million is set to be chopped from university grants, which will directly impact teaching and research and make it even harder for early-career researchers such as myself to secure jobs in the sector.

To say things will be “even harder” is no exaggeration: researchers in the foothills of their careers are already struggling to find the funding to pay their own salaries.

Each year, thousands of us compete for about 200 government-funded research positions. More than 85% of us are unsuccessful and must find a way to stay employed until the next funding opportunity.

There are other funding opportunities for early career researchers, such as internal university schemes, but these are also extremely competitive and in very short supply - my university offers a maximum of one fellowship per research centre per year.

With the planned cuts, it’s unlikely those internal schemes will improve at all in the near future.

So here we have a generation of researchers who have typically spent the previous three to four years studying for their PhD, while receiving a yearly stipend of A$24,000 for living expenses, struggling to find work in their field.

Is this really what we want for the next generation of Australian researchers?

Show us the money

Early-career researchers are required to secure funding that covers both research-related costs and their own salaries. This is typically in the form of a fellowship, which provides a salary of around A$72,000 to 75,000 a year and project funds of A$40,000 a year for three years.

Applicants must have held their PhDs for less than five years to be eligible to apply for early-career researcher fellowships. The premier funding source for early-career researchers is the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) administered by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The scheme was conceived in 2011 and first awarded to successful applicants for commencement in 2012. This first round attracted 2,159 proposals from hopeful researchers, of which 277 were funded.

The most recent DECRA funding round (for which the successful applicants started work in January) attracted 1,281 proposals, of which 200 were funded.

Unfortunately, the DECRA success rate has averaged only 14% over the past two funding rounds – that is, six out of every seven applicants receive nothing but a rejection letter.

Increasing demand

The ARC introduced the DECRA scheme in 2011 to address concerns about the then current system where early-career researchers applied for fellowships from the same granting scheme as senior researchers.

According to the ARC Discovery Program Consultation Paper released in November 2010, the primary aim of the DECRA program was to “improve the assessment and success rate for early-career researchers”.

In the five years from 2005 to 2009, the average success rate of applicants for fellowships under the old system was 16.6% – a higher success rate than for the new DECRA program that replaced it (14%).

The number of fellowships funded under the previous system averaged 112 a year, compared to around 200 for the new DECRA system. This is a positive step, but falls very short of solving the problem - following the introduction of the DECRA fellowships the number of applicants more than doubled compared to the previous funding scheme.

We have a situation where the best and brightest young minds in Australia, having graduated from their three-to-four- year-long PhD program, find it extremely difficult to continue a career in research.

Too many PhDs?

According to statistics from the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, 7,305 students commenced a PhD in Australia in 2012.

In 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), 6,464 students completed their doctorate and graduated with a PhD in hand – ready to enter the workforce.

Not all of those PhDs will choose research as a career pathway – some will work in the private sector and others will secure jobs in local and state government – but there’s still a severe shortage of funding opportunities for those who do wish to continue in research. How do we fix this?

One option is to shift the funding focus from PhD scholarships to postdoctoral fellowships. What is the point of training more and more PhDs if there are no employment opportunities for them when they finish?

In the 2008-09 budget the government doubled the number of Australian Postgraduate Awards (APA) – the Government-funded scholarship that many PhD students receive to cover the cost of living.

In 2012, this meant that 3,500 students were offered APA scholarships worth more than A$250 million dollars.

What if we diverted some of that funding into more fellowships for ECRs? Wouldn’t this be a more responsible way to spend taxpayers’ money? If only a third of the A$250 million spent on APA scholarships was diverted to the DECRA scheme the number of fellowships could be doubled to 400.

Sort yourself out, Australia

According to the 2011 Australian Innovation System report, Australia ranks 22nd out of 28 OECD countries for public expenditure on tertiary education, spending only 1% of GDP.

This places us almost 50% below the top five OECD countries for this indicator. Yet the Commonwealth Government, in its 2009 report Powering Ideas: An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century, stressed the importance of supporting research in Australia.

Two key priorities identified in that report were to:

  • develop a research workforce strategy to address expected shortfalls in the supply of research-qualified people
  • create viable career paths for Australian researchers

That was more than three years ago and, so far, the situation for early-career researchers has only worsened.

As mentioned at the outset of this article, proposed funding cuts to university grants, to the tune of A$900 million, have been proposed by the government to fund the Gonski reforms to school education.

The implication of the funding shortfall for early-career researchers is that many will be unable to pursue a career in research in Australia – it is a simple case of over-supply and under-demand.

Some people may move overseas to secure a research job, while others will settle for a job in industry that will likely pay more, but perhaps not offer the same level of excitement and reward.

Either way, the end result is an exporting of the best young minds to different countries or different jobs.

We won’t let you down

If I could say something to the Australian Government on behalf of early-career researchers – such as myself – currently unsure of their future in this field, I would say this:

We want to work.

We want to contribute to the betterment of society and the advancement of knowledge. We want to see Australia as a country that actively supports young researchers and provides an environment that fosters excellence in its research institutions.

In return, we will ensure Australia is a leader in knowledge generation and innovation. We’re not asking for a salary increase, or more holidays, or less working hours. We’re not asking to be handed a career on a silver platter.

We’re just asking for better than a 14% chance at a research career. We have so much to give, but limited opportunity to do so.

Give us the chance, and we won’t let you down.

Am I alone in feeling this way? I doubt it, but it would be good to hear your views.