Australia might be the land of surf, swim and sun, but something’s making all the scientists flee, says Naturejobs journalism competition winner Catherine Carnovale.
When now ex-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot abolished the role of science minister in September 2013, members of Australia’s scientific community fastened our seat belts. This telling sign signalled the first of many cuts to science and innovation before the new government delivered their knock-out punch to the industry in the form of the 2014-15 budget.
Funding cuts projected to total $420 million were spread across five key national research agencies, while an additional $460 million was set to be recouped though the abolition of various innovation and commercialisation programs. The news sent shockwaves rippling through the science community, with many interest groups and prominent individuals registering their opinion publicly in opposition.
While Australia focuses on the export of finite resources like ore and coal, countries like South Korea, the USA and Japan focus on innovation, patenting their ideas, and investing in research. The greatest exports from Australia should be driven by innovation, following the precedent set by local researchers over the last century leading to technologies both diverse and ubiquitous; insect repellent, Wi-Fi, spray-on skin, plastic bank notes and improved weather forecasting all owe their development to Australian scientists.
Each of these developments required considerable investment, which was pledged by consecutive political leaders who may have differed in allegiances but who shared an understanding that scientific developments do not occur on the same timescale as revolving governments.
One could argue that Australia’s most valuable exported commodity is its people. Research scientists with valuable skill sets often leave Australia — where research jobs are scarce — to take up positions in laboratories abroad. This comes at a benefit to countries around the globe, which stand to capitalise on their future achievements.
I am one of these scientists. After recently finishing my fully funded PhD in Australia, I was quickly made aware of the lack of opportunity my country would offer me for the next stage of my career. It’s admirable that the Australian government supports a high number PhD places, but these investments have developed a crowd of highly qualified scientists fighting to find their way into shrinking, underfunded research institutes.
During my PhD I was wooed by European fairytales — stories of countries where science was popular, researchers were sought after, and institutions had money to spend. In reality I was unwaveringly encouraged by my supervisors and colleagues that the best option for my career was to leave the country and gain experience and exposure abroad.
This materialised when I was offered a postdoc position at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa, Italy. The Institute is a relatively recent addition to Genoa’s skyline, nestled among the mountains just outside of the city. Built during a time of economic downturn, its main purpose was to drive innovation and foster Italy’s economic development. IIT now stands as a prime example of well-timed investment, providing over 1400 jobs and acting as the springboard for 12 start-up companies. I can’t say that I don’t feel some guilt for not contributing to the Australian research scene, after receiving support to obtain my qualification. But Australia is stuck in an innovation rut. With repeated cuts to its industry, innovation and science portfolio, the number of qualified scientists unable to find local research positions is rising. As a result, a decline in enrolment for new students seeking tertiary science education is forecasted. And thus innovation in Australia is sinking.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Australian government is acutely aware of the value of our nation’s scientists. In an ideal world, I’m sure our treasurer would prefer to fund research institutions, rather than announce cuts. I am equally sure that our leaders envisage our nation to one day be a magnet which attracts the greatest minds from around the world. So I can only hope when budget time comes around again, someone realises that Australia’s pockets are deep enough to fund a long term investment in science.
Catherine Carnovale is an Australian postdoctoral researcher, working at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, Italy. She is currently examining the way that nanoparticles behave in different environments to determine what impact this might have on our health. Outside the lab, she enjoys cooking and exploring her new Italian surroundings.