“Today, around 7,000 PhD students graduate each year, with more than half in science, technology, engineering and maths…..In 2014, however, the success rate for most Australian government funded research grants hit a 30-year low of 15%, with another drop predicted for 2015.”

The above quote comes from a16 February 2015 article in The Conversation, Seven myths about scientists debunked. The article aims to set the record straight on some current misconceptions about scientific researchers. One of the misconceptions (Myth 4) is that Worthy research always gets funded. In fact,

In 1937, the success rate for medical research grants was 49%….Through to 2000, success rates hovered around 30%….In 2014, however, the success rate for most Australian government funded research grants hit a 30-year low of 15%”. The article provides a link to a January 30, 2015 Sydney Morning Herald National article ‘This is just insanity’: four Nobel laureates let fly over Australian science funding”

Yes, it appears that the primary misconception about the value of scientific research lies with the Government. These articles reflect a background of serious concern about reductions in funding for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.) The Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) February 2015 Report, Progressing STEM Skills in Australia notes that “Australia’s performance internationally lags behind many other comparable countries which are improving their provision, participation and performance more rapidly than us.” The Ai Group Survey of Workforce Development Needs 2014 found that “almost 44% of employers continue to experience difficulties recruiting STEM qualified technicians and trade workers. The main barriers are a lack of qualifications relevant to the business (36%) and a lack of employability skills and workplace experience (34%).”

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE)’s October 2014 Submission to the 2015 Defence White Paper & First Principles Review  focussed on two main aspects:

“- the importance of science and technological innovation for competitiveness and comparative advantage, and the pivotal role of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO);and

 – the critical need to enhance Australia’s capacity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to provide the workforce capable of designing, building and maintaining Australia’s defence materiel.”

It seems the Australian Government has not been listening to its Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, who  noted in a keynote speech at the US Ambassadors Roundtable last July that “scientific and technological advances have produced roughly half of all US economic growth in the last 50 years.” Also that “In Australia, 65 per cent of economic growth per capita from 1964 to 2005 can be ascribed to improvements in our use of capital and labour – made possible in large part by STEM”

Clearly, failure to enhance our STEM capacity will impact on Australia’s economic growth. Apart from the funding problems, there are other pressures which prevent Australian scientists from remaining in Australia. Danielle Edwards, Associate Research Scientist at Yale University, gives an interesting personal account of her reasons for turning down a lucrative Discovery Early Career Award (DECRA) worth A$385,000. Danielle had always wanted to stay in Australia and when she accepted work in the US, still “yearned to settle and have a family, ideally in Australia. So, since 2010, I have applied for almost every available Australian position that I could.”  In a 9 February 2015 article in The Conversation,

Why I turned down a DECRA to work in the United States,  Danielle notes that “The DECRA was designed to attract/keep the brightest young minds and is largely viewed as a gateway into Australian faculty positions. But for me the lack of long-term promise after the award or attached to it was not enough to take up this prestigious honour”

Danielle gives a number of reasons why Australian scientists are “doing it tough”, including “Faculty are retiring and not being replaced, yet class sizes are increasing. Furthermore, university positions are rare, especially for couples, affecting recruitment of women. Legislation was also introduced to make PhD students pay fees. A lot of Australian university research is PhD-driven. If passed, this legislation would disadvantage Australian labs for recruiting even top Australian students. PhD students generally don’t have to pay fees in most other countries, so top Australian students would essentially be better off going overseas for their PhD studies.”