Comment: Science in Australia - a bleak future?

The life of a scientist in Australia is already difficult, with a massive amount of time and work spent on competing for scarce pools of funding.

A lack of funding, scarce job opportunities and an air of government indifference: it's hard to feel that science and scientists are valued at all, writes Catriona Wimberley.

The research that has been conducted in Australia is incredible. We have excellent programs in medical science, in physics, in environmental science among others and we are lucky to have some of the worlds leading researchers here. As a researcher in the early stages of my career, I am very lucky to be working with a number of highly committed and bright scientists on projects that contribute to an understanding of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Eventually, I hope this work will be even a fraction as important as Australia’s other medical science successes, such as the bionic ear or the discovery that stomach ulcers are caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori and not stress or spicy food!

However, Australia is a challenging place for a young scientist right now. As a PhD student, coming to the end of my degree and contemplating what a career in science in Australia will be, I find myself worried about the direction that it could take. The lack of security and diminishing value Australia places on what I and other scientific researchers do has the potential to negatively impact my future - not to mention the future of other early career researchers.

A question mark hangs over the future of science in Australia. The life of a scientist in this country is already difficult, with a massive amount of time and work spent on competing for scarce pools of funding. The largest funding body for medical research in Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), only funded 16.9% of project applications this year - a drop from 2012, when 20.5% of applications were funded.

The applications themselves take an enormous amount of effort; in fact, it was calculated by Herbert et al of Queensland University of Technology that for 2012 there were 550 working years of researchers’ time put into creating applications for NHMRC grants. Given the success rate, that means that over four centuries of researchers’ time has been redirected from research outcomes. The grants that are funded by the NHMRC are for a period of 3 years (to be increased to 5 years) and these 3 years can be a worryingly short period of time when faced with the responsibilities of family and other personal circumstances and researchers will need to seek out more funding after that period. Current funding levels are so low that even the CEO of the NHMRC is encouraging PhD students to look elsewhere for careers.

The lack of investment into science has been highlighted the Australian Academy of Sciences as an issue affecting the nation’s future stability. The AAS states that our research has already started to move backwards, and that Australia’s best hope for creating a strong economy is through investment in science and innovation. If the current trend continues, the dismissal of scientific voices in Australia, as well as the fall in research grant success rates, will see young researchers discouraged. As the president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes has warned, this deterrence could end in our brightest researchers moving overseas or changing careers entirely.

Since the recent change of government, choosing the path of a medical researcher has become even less appealing. Despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently stating he will “continue to support science to the fullest extent possible”, there is no dedicated science minister, government research bodies have suffered significant funding cuts (such as $42 million from Australia's Information Communications Technology Research Centre, NICTA, and the CSIRO losing an astounding 25% of its staff, and climate change science has been dismissed time and time again.

In the current climate, it is hard to feel that science and scientists will be valued or looked after at all. There are groups trying to address these challenges but if we want to continue our country’s legacy of important scientific breakthroughs, something needs to change.

Catriona Wimberley is studying a PhD in Medical Physics.

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