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There’s a lot of angst in the scientific community about the apparent whittling away of opportunities for emerging scientists in New Zealand as a result of the dismantling of the FRST postdoctoral fellowship scheme.

Dr Massaro - concerned about postdocs

Dr Massaro - concerned about postdocs

This manifested itself late last year in a letter being circulated that was signed by 560 scientists which complained that the the lack of postdoctoral opportunities for the “vast majority of New Zealand early career researchers adds to the ‘brain drain’”.

Numerous issues with the newly established Rutherford Discovery Fellowships were identified by scientists, who were chiefly concerned that the fellowships were available to scientists more advanced in their careers, potentially shutting out early and mid career scientists who need financial support from beyond a scientific institution while they establish themselves in research.

All of this was under the spotlight yesterday at the New Zealand Association of Scientists conference in Wellington. if you weren’t there you can pick up the thread by searching the #nzas and #nzasconf hash tags on Twitter, which several of us were using to tweet throughout the day. Podcasts of many of the presentations will also be posted on the NZAS website over the coming days.

The Rutherford fellowships

Mindful of the vocal opposition to the make up of the new fellowships, the government late last year embarked on some consultation with scientists over how they might be improved. that resulted in an update from Science and Innovation minister Steven Joyce last week outlining some changes to the scheme, which were also outlined by the MSI’s Chief Scientist Prue Williams at the conference yesterday. They include:

• Focussing the award process on selecting excellent researchers who have leadership potential

• A priority on the repatriation of talented New Zealanders

• Reducing the application period to 3-8 years after receiving the PhD (previously 3-10 years)

• Allowing a broad range of leadership qualities to be supported by removing the distinction between Tier 1 (leadership potential) and Tier 2 (demonstrated leadership) researchers

• Changing the expectation that Fellows receive permanent employment from their associated institution, to an expectation that they be contracted for employment over the full term of the fellowship

’One of our priorities is to develop New Zealand’s skill base for innovation. MSI will do further work with the Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission to ensure post doctoral researchers within NZ have sufficient opportunity to stay in the country and contribute to the New Zealand economy and society.

Dr Williams explained, rather apologetically, that issues remain with the fellowships that are outside the control of the MSI, hence the undertaking outlined in the last bullet point above.

How did scientists react yesterday? The general tone seemed to be that the changes were merely tinkering at the edges and that don’t address the deeper issue that opportunities for emerging scientists – including those wanting to come back to New Zealand to continue their careers, are very limited and that we underspend on postgrad fellowships to the detriment of the science system. However some saw the changes as a sign that politicians are willing to listen and engage and make change based on consultation with the science sector.

Academic overheads

One well-gnawed bone of contention yesterday was the issue of academic overheads and the impact they have on the affordability of postgrads for scientific institutions.

As University of Canterbury environmental researcher Melanie Massaro pointed out in that letter last year:

Given the high overheads associated with salaries for postdoctoral fellows (~120% at most NZ Universities), it is not economically viable to include postdoctoral fellows in grant applications. This raises the question, where do all these highly‐trained and talented early career researchers exercise their skills after completion of their PhDs?

She repeated her concerns yesterday, pointing out that in the US, the overhead rate sits at around 50 per cent and is even lower (between 30 – 40 per cent) in some European countries. This claim met with outright denial from at least one researcher, who has received funding from the US National Science Foundation and claims the overhead rates are in fact comparable.

One thing became obvious yesterday – a lot of scientists are confused about the status of overheads, how they are calculated and the impact overheads have on the attractiveness of hiring postdocs. indeed, it appears there could be greater transparency or at least clarity in this area. I managed to find this explanation of the overhead calculations on the University of Auckland website

The calculation is undertaken as follows:

  1. The total indirect costs of the institution supporting Externally Funded Research are determined as A.
  2. The total direct salary component associated with Externally Funded Research is determined as B.
  3. The Research Overhead Recovery Rate is then determined as the ratio A/B, expressed as a percentage. The rate is thus a function of both indirect costs supporting Externally Funded Research and researcher salary levels.

In the period 2003 to 2007 The University of Auckland overhead rate has been 121% of the direct salary costs of doing the research. Because salary costs have been increasing at a greater rate than the indirect costs of doing research, the overhead rate for 2008 has been recalculated at 114% of the direct salary costs.

Does New Zealand’s academic overhead rates discourage postdocs from being employed? Probably, in some cases, due to the inherently greater cost of hiring postgrads. Why hire an expensive postdoc when you can get two cheap and keen PhD students?

Academic burnout

There was a lot of discussion at the NZAS conference about the pressure on emerging scientists to be masters of all trades – not just good at science, but savvy at communicating their science, as well as networking and understanding the needs of the business community.

Speakers throughout the day expressed differing views on this. Those in business professed a desire for scientists to develop these skills and to see the ultimate outcome of their science as having a beneficial impact on the economy. Others suggested it was unrealistic to suggest all scientists could – or should – develop these skills. Phil O’Reilly, of Business New Zealand, surprised many by saying that he didn’t expect all scientists to gear up to work with the business sector. That would be like trying to make them “drink from a fire hose”, was the way he put it.

But with the influence of scientist and entrepreneur Sir Paul Callaghan looming large over the conference, the theme seemed to be that scientists benefit greatly from upskilling in these non-science areas. GNS Science’s Dr Kelvin Berryman, questioned the level of supervision support for PhD students, which can typically be as low as two hours a week. If scientists were expected to be multi-skilled, more time was needed to work with them and it wouldn’t always be appropriate for their science leader to be dishing out commercialisation tips.

Most of the old hands on the bill – IRL’s Dr Richard Furneaux and Izon’s Hans van der Voorn, suggested that science was hard work any way you looked at it, and if you have an entrepreneurial bone in your body as a scientist, you simply had to gather the skills you could, where you could, to get ahead.

Certainly, I put in an appeal at the end for all scientists to spend some time honing their communication skills which not only help scientists engage with business, government and the public, but makes them more effective in articulating their requests for more money!

One thing that became clear during the day is that there are now numerous organisations representing emerging researchers – Chiasma, Stratus, MeSA, Creative HQ, Spark, Entire and Audacious among them. This is great to see – but there needs to be some co-ordination among them – perhaps via the NZAS.

Science leadership

The conference kicked off with the politicians – primary industries minister David Carter standing in for Steven Joyce, who was overseas, and David Shearer chipping in on behalf of Labour. I received a fairly muted response when i asked participants on a panel discussion at the end of the day, what they thought of the messages coming from our political leaders.

Some seem jaded with the focus on innovation, while others who have been through countless economic transformation programmes and initiatives see the current policies as more of the same. David Carter addressed concerns that the word “science” is missing from the title of the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, saying it was impossible to reference everything in the title, but that science would be a valued part of the mix. He also suggested, that the existing MSI may be largely ring-fenced and kept intact within the new ministry.

Carter didn’t take questions which was a shame, but David Shearer did. While he went over his usual points about following the examples of Nokia and Israel, he didn’t reveal what Labour would do differently – other than referring people to Labour’s science manifesto.

The upshot

It was a genuinely productive and informative day. Emerging researchers face a lot of challenges in securing a future for themselves in New Zealand. Money is tight, competition for a small number of fellowships is fierce. The momentum is swinging towards commercialisation and applied science.

But i got the sense that there is great science going on here, we have bright and ambitious scientists and, on a small country, the benefit of being able to get the ear of the people who can bring about change. I look forward to the NZAS kicking along all of these issues. If you are a scientist join up with the NZAS – membership, I’m told is free if you sign up in the next few weeks.

Emerging researchers most definitely do have a future in New Zealand and the more engaged they are in the issues and in articulating the value of their science, the more likely they are to see change that will help secure their futures here.