Universities

Stories from the bottom face of scientific research in Australia

After his one-year deal expired, Lacy-Nichols had a four-month gap waiting for his next one to be signed. Meanwhile, to avoid having to take a break from her job at the University of Melbourne, she converted her role from four days a week to one day, then took that day as annual leave.

“I can’t live on a 0.2 salary, so luckily I chose a short-term consulting position,” she said. “It’s the nature of the beast; it was my first introduction to the university funding cycle.

A tenant, she said job insecurity made it difficult to plan ahead and made it difficult to take out a mortgage with her partner.

“I’m very confident that I will have a career in academia, but I can’t tell you what my next job will be in two and a half years.”

She would like casual contracts to be abolished in universities. “Let’s not make universities the next Uber. You can have a part-time job that still has benefits.

Ankur Singh

Ankur Singh has both researched precarious work – he co-authored an article on undocumented agricultural workers – and experienced it as an Indian migrant with a young family.

“I started my postdoc [post-doctoral research placement] five years ago and I had a one-year contract, and just knowing if the contract would be renewed every year stressed me enormously.

Ankur Singh has both researched and personally experienced precarious work.Credit:Jason South

Added to this pressure was his temporary visa and the uncertainty of whether he would stay in the country, let alone have a permanent job. Singh said more work needs to be done to understand the intersectionality of precarious work and how it affects people differently, including based on gender, background and visa status.

He moved from research-only roles and is now a lecturer in epidemiology at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, where he conducts both teaching and research.

“To be honest, I think I’m one of the lucky few to have survived this. I’ve seen incredibly talented colleagues who got these…competitive scholarships and then aren’t able to keep the jobs they loved because of the lack of funding. It was heartbreaking.

His biggest concern for his colleagues is the damage to their mental health from the stress of navigating the system. “If they miss a grant, they are suddenly unemployed. Where is the backup strategy to support these people? »

Natalia Egorova Brumley

When her second child was just a week old, neuroscientist Natalia Egorova Brumley was filling out a grant application so her career wouldn’t stop or end soon after she returned to work.

“I was typing on the computer with one hand while holding the baby with the other,” said the Cambridge University PhD holder.

Her current grant was due to expire at the end of this year, so she had to line up another one to ensure she had several more years of work. With the grant process only taking place once a year, she had no choice but to apply so soon after the birth.

Neuroscientist Natalia Egorova Brumley with her six-month-old son.

Neuroscientist Natalia Egorova Brumley with her six-month-old son.Credit:Chris Hopkins

“There have to be systemic changes to ease the stress,” she said of a research environment where funding has become much more precarious and work more precarious.

With a four-year-old daughter and six-month-old son, she says the system is particularly difficult to navigate for women with children.

As a senior researcher at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, Egorova Brumley is originally from Russia but has also studied in the United States and worked across Europe.

Since 2015, she has been working in Australia. She said there must be multiple deadlines for applying for grants and a chance to apply for smaller sub-grants. She found that she had to work on her holidays to ensure that her research career remained on an “upward trajectory”.

In the end, she landed a three-year scholarship that will keep her “employed for a while.”

George Taiaroa

George Taiaroa knew what to expect from a career in science because both of his parents were academics. But it has always been a challenge to navigate the system as a young infectious disease researcher studying the evolution of diseases such as Covid-19.

“If we say we value science as a nation and its role in addressing challenges like the pandemic or climate change – well, we’re not really funding that.”

Although Taiaroa is working in an in-demand area of ​​research, there are few stable funding opportunities left, and for many researchers, seeking new employment may mean moving from state to state or overseas.

George Taiaroa is an infectious disease researcher who has also researched precarious work.

George Taiaroa is an infectious disease researcher who has also researched precarious work.Credit:Jason South

Taiaroa completed her PhD in New Zealand and is now in her fourth year as a researcher at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne.

The biggest stress was that he had to commit to moving to Australia with little job security: he is employed on a 12-month contract which is renewed every year.

“If you have a mortgage or are looking to start a family and can only forecast 12 months of income, that means the industry may be much less attractive,” he said.

Vaughan Macefield

Vaughan Macefield gave up an ongoing academic post to return to pure research and his specialty, which studies how the brain controls blood pressure.

Vaughan Macefield describes research as a “gig economy”.

Vaughan Macefield describes research as a “gig economy”.Credit:Paul Jeffers

From 1986, when he completed his doctorate, to 2006, Macefield was on a short-term contract, and now, after a decade of stint in academia, he is again working in non-continuing work.

“It’s been a long time without job security; it’s very stressful,” said Macefield, now at the Baker Institute.

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“You have these highly skilled people working in very specialized areas for a limited budget… it’s really a gig economy. We are just recovering those small amounts of funding,” he said.

“Unless you have a continuing academic appointment at a university, everyone else in the research sector receives short-term grants: Florey, Baker, Peter Mac, everyone. Nobody has a permanent job and there are no permanent jobs.“

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